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Indian Villages

Gilbert Etienne


Jean-Luc Maurer

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1This book is published as a posthumous tribute to Professor Gilbert Etienne who passed away on 17 May 2014, a few weeks before celebrating his 86th birthday. He had been teaching development studies at the Graduate Institute since 1958 and it is how we thought we could best express our gratitude to him. It was also in our view a duty to make this book available to the international community of researchers working on Indian development issues as his last gift to them, a sort of ultimate message if not a testament. After all, he was certainly the only scholar in the world capable of writing such a short and concise synthesis based on sixty years of direct observation of economic and social change in rural India, from 1952 to 2012.

2Born in 1928 in Neuchâtel, Gilbert Etienne initially studied law and obtained a licence in 1951 at the university of his hometown. However, as a very open minded person with a keen interest for other cultures and curiosity for the things of the vast world, he had developed, very early on, a true passion for India and its civilization. He then went to Paris to pursue his studies of India and Hindi at the famous Institut des langues et civilisations orientales, from which he graduated in 1954. In the meantime, primarily attracted by a concrete confrontation with fieldwork, he had managed to spend a full year in India and Pakistan in 1952-53. During this time he taught in Lahore and conducted his first research to collect the information needed for the doctoral thesis he was preparing on the economy and population of India, which he defended in Neuchâtel in 1955. After having married in 1954 Annette du Pasquier, the love of his life with whom he was about to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary, and while their first child was only six months old, the Etienne family departed in 1956 to settle in Bombay. There Gilbert was going to work as a representative of the well-known Swiss watch brand Favre-Leuba until 1958. This first professional experience gave him the opportunity to meet many Indian people from governmental and private circles involved in the economic and social development policies of their newly independent country and it convinced him that his vocation was to devote his life to the study of these issues.

3Not long after returning to Switzerland, he met Professor Freymond, then the dynamic and visionary director of the Graduate Institute of International Studies (IUHEI). Jacques Freymond, who was aspiring to open his institution to the study of development issues and Third World countries, as they were then called, recruited Gilbert Etienne as a lecturer in 1958. Having already published two books in 1955, the first drawn from his doctoral thesis on the economy and population of India and the other on Indian art, he made the effort to widely broaden his horizons on Asian economic and social development issues by publishing an essay in 1959 entitled, De Caboul à Pékin, Rythmes et perspectives d’expansion économique. In 1962, he started to deepen the comparative perspective between the two Asian giants of the developing world, which would remain at the heart of his research work until the end of his career, by publishing his first book on China entitled La voie chinoise, later translated in several languages. It is on this basis that he was appointed full professor at IUHEI where he would become the main initiator and vector of development studies. As such, he was closely involved in the creation of the Geneva African Institute in 1962, which would become the Institute of Development Studies in 1973 and the Graduate Institute of Development Studies (IUED) in 1977. Sharing his great availability and energy between the two institutions, Gilbert has remained a very active and influential professor until his retirement in 1998, equally appreciated by both his colleagues and his students.

4As far as teaching is concerned, Gilbert Etienne has effectively and enthusiastically taught several generations of students in our two institutes about the economic and social development issues of Third World countries, or the Global South as it is called nowadays. Upholding a multidisciplinary approach in which the “long history”, dear to Fernand Braudel and his École des Annales, is crucial to understand and possibly solve economic, social and political development problems, he has been at the origin of many vocations. An excellent professor, he was able to transmit his passion and his enthusiasm to those students who had chosen to do their MA or PhD thesis, as it had been the case for me, under his supervision. A very demanding thesis supervisor, able to return a chapter read and corrected the day after its reception, but always cognizant of the difficulties of writing or the hazards of life, he has always supported his students in all circumstances. He fully belonged to the highly respectable category of university professors who are happy and proud of the success of their students, for which they feel honoured, instead of running them down and fighting them when they feel they might bring them umbrage. I personally experienced this positive and generous attitude when I became the director of IUED from 1992 to 2004, while he remained a very supportive but critically constructive faculty member. He had also taught regularly outside of IUHEI and IUED, which merged in 2008 to form the present Graduate Institute (of International and Development Studies), in the USA, at MIT, Cornell or Chicago universities; in India at JNU in Delhi; and has been invited twice as guest professor to the Collège de France in Paris by his mentor and lifelong friend Pierre Gourou, who then held the chair in tropical geography. Besides this, Gilbert has given a countless number of conferences and seminars in universities and places located at the four corners of the world.

5Concerning research and publications, Gilbert Etienne has shown amazing activity and has been a very prolific author. Actually, he has published no less than 40 books in his career, more than 30 as sole author, and well over 100 articles in scientific journals, not to mention his very regular contributions in Swiss and French newspapers like Le Journal de Genève, until it ceased publication in 1996, and Le Monde, but occasionally also in the British and Indian press. Most of his writings are based on his own fieldwork research in Asia, where he has lived altogether for more than ten years. Gilbert never missed the opportunity of a sabbatical leave to go back for months to India, but also Pakistan, Bangladesh and China, usually accompanied by his wife Annette as his closest assistant, to study again the main economic and social development issues facing these countries. His methods were simple, not based on grand theories or any ideological position, but just on common sense and the analysis of information and opinions gathered from the whole social and political spectrum of each country, ranging from the prime minister to the most humble landless agricultural labourer. On the basis of his concrete and comparative analysis of major developing countries like India and China, he would then draw more general conclusions on development policies and practices. Among his latest and most important and successful books, the complete list of which is given at the end of this publication, let us just mention: Chine-Inde: le match du siècle in 1998, updated in 2007 under the title Chine-Inde: la grande compétition or Le développement à contre-courants in 2003 and Repenser le développement: messages d’Asie in 2009. From his more focused studies on agricultural and rural development problems and prospects in Indian villages to larger comparative considerations on development strategies and what he called “the overall process of development”, Gilbert struggled and pleaded until his last breath for sound economic and social policies capable of improving the lives of the poorest people. The present posthumous book in its simplicity and straightforwardness is a perfect ultimate synthesis of his contribution to development studies.

6An intellectual and a man of action at the same time, Gilbert Etienne also never hesitated to get involved with and to engage in concrete development activities, working as a regular consultant for the Swiss government, either with the Swiss Development Agency (DDC) or the State Secretary for Economic Affairs (SECO), occasionally for some Swiss private companies like Nestlé and Electrowatt, the World Bank or IFPRI in Washington. Last but not least, he has been for many years a member of the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC), of the board of Swisscontact, an NGO dealing with vocational and technical education in developing countries, and above all had been the long-time President of the grass-root Swiss NGO Frères de nos Frères and of the Geneva Asia Society.

7On a more personal note, I just want to give the reader a short testimony about the extraordinary and original character that was our colleague, mentor and friend. Among many other things, I remember the amazing departures of the Etienne family each time Gilbert had a sabbatical year. I still see the Peugeot break, full to the top, leaving their home in Geneva, turning right at the end of the road in the direction of the south and towards Italy… destination Delhi! In India, I had the good fortune in the 80’s to spend a week with Gilbert-sahab, as he was called by the Indian peasants, in Khandoï, the village of Western Uttar Pradesh where he had done his initial fieldwork and where he came back repeatedly over the years. The studious and frugal life would start at 5am with some tea, a nan and his favourite schabziger cheese from Central Switzerland when it was available, then the departure to look for some villagers to interview, many of whom have probably not yet forgotten this tall white man dressed in bush-short rushing to them to ask questions about their daily life in a Hindi he mastered very well. Back in Geneva, the main image of him I will forever keep in mind is of Gilbert riding his bicycle even on a pouring day, following the pedestrian sidewalk at full speed to avoid the traffic lights and then asking the staggered doorman of a luxurious hotel to keep his bike and his drenched raincoat while running in his impeccable blazer, with a rose at his buttonhole, to an appointment with an important academic, diplomat or businessman. Returning to less mundane considerations, what I mostly want to convey here is that Gilbert was a free and independent mind who never hesitated to frankly convey his way of thinking to people. How much verbal sparring with colleagues did he engage in to oppose “rightist and leftist dogmatisms”, as he qualified them? When the conversation was taking a more sibylline and tedious character, he delighted himself in reminding the audience that “the virtue of flies was in danger”! Until his last breath, he never ceased to fulminate against the idiots and ignorant people who neglected the role of agricultural and rural development or, on the contrary, against those who thought it was easy to launch an Asian-type “green revolution” in mostly un-irrigated Africa.

8To sum up, Gilbert Etienne has really been a man of exception. Born under the sign of Gemini, he realized a rare synthesis within a single person, one which contained both a man of strict principles and a true nonconformist. His incomparable style, his large culture, his wide vision of things, his authentic humanism, his generosity, his faithfulness in love and friendship, his impatience to see reason and compassion finally getting the upper hand, his perseverance to fight up to the end for a better and more equitable world make him an irreplaceable person. He is leaving a great void for his wife, his children, his family, his friends and his colleagues. All of them deeply regret his passing and nobody will ever forget him. We shall henceforth have to do without this eminent Swiss citizen of the world, a type of man who has become rare when we would need many more of his kind to face the challenges of our time. He has devoted his whole life to traveling the vast world around in the endeavour of improving the human condition. For that and many other things Gilbert Etienne will remain in our minds and in our hearts. It falls now on us to follow his example. As present generation youngsters would say today with a single word that they often use: “respect to him!”

9Almaty, Kazakhstan, 1st August 2014


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