Controversial, and Proud of It


Stockholm Water Prize Laureate Dr. John Briscoe speaks to stockholm Water Front about growing up under apartheid, his discord with self-proclaimed saviors of the world, and his admiration for water practitioners.

Dr. John Briscoe, a native of South Africa and currently a Professor at Harvard University, has been described as a person with vast experience from all levels, from the highest policy level to the field. But he rejects the idea of one being more important than the other.

'At the end of the day it is what happens on the ground that matters. All policies must be judged by whether they make a difference on the ground. I believe that the years I spent working at the micro level is what enables me to be an effective policy-maker.'

What, if any, difference has it made in your career that you a born and raised in South Africa?

A huge difference. In South Africa, as in many other places, the Good Lord put the resources on which our country would grow in one place, and the water in another place. Concern with developing and managing water resources is in my blood and that of most South Africans. I was also brought up during the apartheid era and, like many of my peers, this gave rise to an acute concern with justice and development.!

You are equally at ease, and equally committed, talking to a president and a poor farmer. Where do you make best use of your time?

It has been my privilege to be able to do both of these. On the one hand it is vital to constantly learn from people 'at the end of the line' about what they see as priorities in living better lives.

On the other hand political leaders have a vital role in policies and investments. Having worked with many great political leaders I have a deep respect for how difficult their jobs are. They cannot simply pay attention to one issue or one group of people - they have to know how to integrate across issue, group and time.

Is there any period in your life that has made a strong impact on your professional choices?

Platitudinous as is it may sound, I have learned something from every experience. I learned a lot from my mother about poverty and injustice as she ran an orphanage and day care center in Soweto. I learned a lot working in the ministry of water in South Africa about how important major infrastructure was to national economic growth and security. I learned a lot about the priorities of very poor people and the fallacies of high-sounding slogans when I lived with poor people in Bangladesh in the 1970s. I learned a lot about the challenges facing governments with limited capacity when working for the government of Mozambique after independence. I learned a lot working on the World Bank water policy about how imperative it was to let everyone be heard and yet to make policies which responded to the needs of legitimate representatives of people in developing countries. I learned a lot as the World Bank's country director for Brazil about how important it was to respect and support legitimate, elected, political leaders and about putting my own pet theme - water - into a broader context. I am learning a lot as a professor about how hungry students are to make a difference, and how badly they are advised by people who live in glass houses.

Is there any professional achievement in your life that you value higher than others?

I feel that all roads have led to Rome for me. Almost everything I have done has focused on the same goal, namely of trying to help make this a better world. Sometimes it is listening to a farmer or a government official; some¬times it is giving a talk to students. sometimes it is writing high policy and trying to convince institutions like the World Bank to do the right thing.

Do you consider yourself controversial?

Yes! And I am proud of that. I would say there are two dimensions on which I feel particularly strongly and am considered controversial. First. I have had and continue to have, huge differences of opinion with people who, 1 feel, tell other people what they should want and how thev should live their lives. These are typically single-issue groups who are elected by no one, who proclaim themselves to be the saviors of something, who mostly don't know what it is to live without food, electricity or water. In my view they have a right to be heard, but get far too much credit and clout in the halls of power in rich countries. Second. I also do not have a high opinion of people who give advice without ever having had responsibility for making things happen on the ground. My heroes are not those who write high-sounding papers on 'new paradigms', but the leaders and practitioners who have responsibility and accountability. It has been my immense privilege to work with many great elected political leaders and many great thinking practitioners. These are my heroes!

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