Groundbreaking thinker, President of RAFI and ETC Group boards
The staff and board of ETC Group are saddened to learn of the passing of Sven Hamrell, aged 92, on July 2nd 2020. Sven was long-term former Executive Director of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation (DHF) in Uppsala Sweden and "President for Life" of RAFI (the former name of ETC Group). He left a huge imprint on the shape and thinking of global civil society and on RAFI/ETC Group in particular.
Sven was the irrepressible force behind the DHF’s groundbreaking "What Now? Another Development" report in 1975, which laid out a bold and different vision for a post-colonial, ecological and endogenous approach to "development" that is now the mainstream of thinking in international civil society co-operation. Through equally groundbreaking seminars and his editorship of the journal Development Dialogue, Sven and his colleagues at DHF brought together and provided a platform for radical and original thinkers working to challenge the power of corporations and oppressive governments across a range of topics including health, food, technology, democracy, communications and much more.
Sven and DHF commissioned, edited and published several of RAFI/ETC’s most significant publications over the past four decades, bringing the issue of seeds and biopiracy, and later new technologies to wider audiences—including "The Law of the Seed", "The Laws of Life", "The Parts of Life" and "The ETC Century". Sven was Involved with RAFI for over 20 years, 16 of those as the organization's only President (until the organization changed name and board chair). One of Sven’s closest colleagues at Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, Niclas Halström, continues today as ETC’s current president of the board. ETC Group offers our deepest condolences to Sven’s surviving family and all who will miss his fierce intellect, booming voice and laughter.
As a more personal memory of Sven Hamrell, Pat Mooney, former Executive Director and Co-Founder of RAFI/ETC Group, and Tim Brodhead and Niclas Hallström, Sven’s succesors as our board chair, offer the following short testimonies on a life well lived.
The cartoon is from Sven's retirement from the ETC Board. It depicts Sven with Carl Linnaeus, a renowned botanist who played a role in the classification of plant species and brought many seeds and pressed flowers back to Sweden, and Jonas Alströmer, who is reputed to have brought the potato to Sweden.
Pat Mooney, ETC Co-Founder and former Executive Director:
I remember when I first didn’t meet Sven. Sven and Olle Nordberg – dressed in backpacks and shoulder bags covering rumpled suits and flying ties raced past me out of the doorway in the Church Center across UN Plaza from, of course, the UN. I later learned they had just finished releasing their major report, “What Now?” to NGOs and were rushing across the street to do the same to ambassadors. That was 1975, and the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, Sven, and Development Dialogue were known even to me. I grabbed – and actually read – “What Now?” and it has been part of my thinking ever since.
Somehow, Sven got hold of “Seeds of the Earth” not long after Tim Brodhead turned my pamphlet into a book, and I first truly met him when I stumbled into an informal lunch in the Artist House Stockholm, which was, at that time, serving as the temporary Parliament while the old chamber was being restored. That morning, I had testified before some parliamentary committee on the evils of multinational seed and chemical corporations. This may sound like – but was not – the auspicious introduction I might have wished for. I had spent the night in my suit, upright, on a train from Oslo arriving in Stockholm early in the morning with ‘Pink Eye’ and was still picking bits of glass out of my hair after an unpleasant altercation with a rather disreputable character that turned out to be the mirror image of…me. Sven paid no attention to my appearance but grilled me on the politics of seeds. Unlike the parliamentary committee, Sven had done his homework; knew what to ask; and left me scrambling for explanations. There was no meanness or aggression in his questioning – only a search for information and a kindly prodding when I glossed over my own doubts.
Some months later, back on the farm in Manitoba, I got a call from Sven asking me if I would write about seeds for the next issue of Development Dialogue. I was thrilled. How many words, I asked. Not a good question. Just write until you’ve finished, he replied. It was 1983 and, that summer, Canada came down with a postal strike, I came down with poison ivy, and Sven and Olle came down the rural phone party line almost daily, inquiring as to my progress as I sat wrestling my brand new IBM desktop with my feet planted in a waterbucket. Every few days, under threat of more calls from Sven, I crossed into the US to mail my bits and pieces. Short days later, Sven would be back on the phone telling me to keep writing. By September or so, the book-length “Law of the Seed” was more or less finished except for the editing. There has never been – could never be – should probably never be – anything like a Sven and Olle edit. Meticulous, endlessly patient and incomprehensively forgiving of my quirky flights of idiomatic non-sequiturs.
Sven, the Foundation, and Development Dialogue changed my world, raised up the seeds issue and rescued RAFI from oblivion many times, and also changed the world of a huge number of friends and allies working on enormous issues of global importance. Shortly after “The Law of the Seed”, Sven became the first president of RAFI/ETC and Sven and Olle continued to publish a succession of Development Dialogues, with Cary Fowler, Hope Shand and I contributing more articles in whole volumes. Along the way, Sven nominated RAFI for the Right Livelihood Award which made an extraordinary difference to how politicians, bureaucrats and scientists perceived our work.
I’ve been thinking about Sven a lot the last few days, because of the Gates Foundation’s attempted takeover of CGIAR and remembering the last attempt by the World Bank in 1994. Back then, I had got word of the takeover on my way to Sven’s retirement party in Uppsala, en route to the CGIAR battle in Nairobi. The thought of not meeting Sven at the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation seemed, then, implausible. I was so used to sitting with him and Olle in the little lounge upstairs talking politics and strategy during the day and drinking Famous Grouse during the night. Sven was always a bit scary – his voice revving up from whisper to roar in nano-seconds and talking about things of which I knew nothing. (The French Encyclopédistes? Could I find them – did I have to read them? Would Sven quiz me?) It took time to understand I was never going to know what he knew and to just revel in the history, the stories and the unerring relevance.
At Sven’s party 26 years ago, I was asked, without warning, to say something and I blurted out some forgettable platitudes and ended saying, “Sven is just plain crazy.” Sonia charged at me and I honestly thought I might get broken. It was a hug. We sat up virtually all of the night talking. None of us believed Sven would really retire. Which was also true when Sven, eight years later, retired as president of ETC. It was Midsummer night in Uppsala and a wonderful party none of us can quite remember.
The last time I met Sven was about five years ago, a warm summery day in Uppsala where I had been invited through Niclas Halström to speak at a university seminar. Olle Nordberg picked me up at the Hotel Linné and we walked together along the river and up past the Cathedral to the Old House – the Dag Hammarskjöld offices. It’s my favourite walk in the world and Olle knew it. We didn’t go in – it’s long since been taken over by a different breed – but went on to the University. I went to see Sven and Sonia at their house and Sven showed me all of the issues he was following spread out, as always, on every conceivable flat surface from fridge tops to floors. The assassination of Olof Palma was always high on his agenda and I don’t think Sven would have left us until the latest report came down a few days ago – and, somehow, I don’t think he would be satisfied.
The last time I didn’t see Sven was in Uppsala a couple of years ago. I made a small effort. Sonia had died recently, and Sven was in a retirement home outside of town. Harold and Anna gently dissuaded me, and I didn’t press. Best to remember Sven thundering in the upstairs meeting room, marching me through the cemetery to see “the Boss” (Dag Hammarskjöld of course), listening and writing in his unending supply of notebooks, and distilling wisdom over distilled drinks with the most astonishing range of characters anyone could ever imagine.
In life, we all have old friends and comrades – those we respect, those we admire, those who amaze us. Sven was all of that. Sven may have known Dag Hammarskjöld – but I knew Sven Hamrell and I just plain loved him.
To Sven’s children and grandchildren, know that like you – your father was not only honoured but loved. Yes, this is a moment to celebrate but, like you, many many of us also have tears to share.
Co-founder, ETC Group (retired)
p.s. 10 years ago, in an old palace ballroom overlooking the Rhine River and Bonn, Manfred Max-Neef rose to his formidable height and began talking about this “crazy guy” he had encountered on a bus years before. Manfred was talking at a gathering of the Right Livelihood Award laureates and the crazy guy was Sven. I have never heard a more beautiful and honest description of anyone. I’m hoping his words were captured on film and could be hoisted high on the website of the Right Livelihood Foundation now. The Old House in Uppsala is not what it used to be but Olle Nordberg carries on – and the third generation – Niclas Halström, President of ETC Group, is moving us on from “What Now?” to “What Next?”
Tim Brodhead, Former ETC Group Board President
I met Sven first in 1973, when I was starting to set up the new agency ACORD, in Geneva. One of ACORD’s founders, Lars-Gunnar Eriksson, CEO of the IUEF, took me to Uppsala. ACORD’s mandate was to work with refugees in Africa, mainly from the still-colonized countries of Southern Africa, and of course refugees fleeing the apartheid regime. The Dag Hammarskjold Foundation, under Sven’s leadership, was the key organizer, advocate and supporter of refugees and had pushed the UN and the OAU to develop policies and international rules to protect them.
So the pilgrimage to Uppsala was literally to meet the fount of knowledge on refugee matters. Barely 30 and knowing nothing about refugees in Africa, I was more than a little intimidated to meet Sven in the DHF office. He and Lars-Gunnar had weightier matters to discuss regarding the liberation struggle, and I listened and marvelled at the world I was just getting introduced to (and at Sven’s idiosyncratic verbal tics, his voice unexpectedly moving from a conspiratorial whisper to a roar in a second). It was the first of many visits to Uppsala, as the DHF became the source of most of the cutting-edge thinking on development challenges, UN reform, and the education needs of refugees. Its publication of the ‘What Now?” series, posing challenging questions into the musty world of development orthodoxy dominated by the World Bank ideologues, was a bombshell.
When I left ACORD and started working with Inter Pares my connection to RAFI grew closer and through that I stayed in touch with Sven, who chaired the ETC International Board. As Pat describes, that culminated with the memorable (if I could remember it) farewell party in Uppsala that lasted through most of (the very brief) midsummer night. The next day there was an abrupt change of the guard; groggy and badly hung-over, I found myself replacing Sven in the Chair at the RAFI board meeting. Of course, I could never really replace Sven, who stayed deeply interested in RAFI’s work (and who kept sending me periodic media articles on Olaf Palme’s murder investigation, all written in Swedish). Sven had an encyclopaedic knowledge, was a risk-taker and a person of passionate conviction. He will be greatly missed.
Niclas Hällström, current ETC Board President
Surely anyone meeting Sven Hamrell for longer than a minute would never forget him. There can’t have been many people on this planet with as strong a personality and brilliance as Sven. I’m very fortunate to have had the privilege of not only getting to know him, but to have spent much of my working life with the two institutions he cared for and shaped the most – the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation and RAFI/ETC Group. Sven has left us, but his legacy surely remains and he will continue to inspire and challenge many of us for the rest of our lives.
With head somewhat tilted, Sven would look you straight in the eye over glasses slipping halfway down his nose, and urgently whisper something intriguing about yet another sensational development in world politics that you had no idea of. He had the ability to make you feel both slightly stupid and also utterly thrilled at the privilege of being one of the first people to be introduced to one of his brilliant revelations, woven from a complex web of ideas, politics, literature, history and current affairs. Then there would be an instant transition from whisper to thunderous, window-rattling roar as Sven would denounce the powers that be who were to be blamed for the exploitations, injustices and wrongs he had just exposed. A day in the office with Sven was never dull.
I have never met anyone with such capacity and intuition to make absolutely original and brilliant connections between seemingly disparate phenomena. Over and over again, I found my initial bewilderment turning into new ways of seeing the world.
I first met Sven in 1995 as his long-term collaborator Olle Nordberg had offered me a position at the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation. I was to take over Olle’s role as associate director as he took over the directorship from Sven, who was retiring after almost 30 years of their working together at the Foundation. But of course Sven never really retired. How could he leave the constant networking with incredible people all over the world, not least from the global South and within the ‘Third system’, and his obsessive need to read every article of the New York Review of Books, The Guardian and seemingly every new book of relevance to development and world affairs? This was his life. One could find Sven at any odd hour at the Foundation, talking on the phone or copying articles to send by fax or post to friends around the world, or to leave on my desk with a note: “Must read!” (I don’t think Sven ever entered the digital age).
Sven and Olle were an amazing duo. So different and so totally in sync. Olle’s steadfast calm, thoughtfully and meticulously working through every new challenge. Sven the impulsive extrovert. Together they provided the incredibly generous, hospitable and inspiring platform for scholar-activists, progressive government officials, UN civil servants, daring journalists and others from across the globe to feel at home and to let radical, alternative ideas flow and cross-fertilize. The Foundation provided the space to genuinely think together, to bond and build life-long connections and collaborations, meandering across issues and themes. The seminal work leading to the publication of What Now – Another Development in 1975 provided the ground and directions for decades to come. (It is an astounding piece of work that is worth re-reading and as relevant and on-point today as it was 45 years ago).
Sven and the Foundation were at the core of the core of all of the cutting edge work on alternative development thinking for decades. New concepts, new thinking, new perspectives that challenged the dominant Western ideas of modernity and progress. The constant mixing and blending of ideas, movements, cultures and strategies for change. The belief in the power of ideas and in good-hearted individuals as the forces changing the world.
One of Sven’s greatest talents must have been the ability to spot unique people and ideas before anyone else. He and Olle would bring them into the ever-expanding network of the Foundation, ask them to contribute to Development Dialogue, and then stay connected with them forever. People leading new and alternative thinking on health, media, disarmament, science, technology, agriculture, ecology, education, pharmaceuticals, the global economy, UN reform, and any other conceivable, important topic were spotted and brought together.
A young Pat Mooney was one such character. Sven realized before anyone else that this Canadian activist had an ability to see things in entirely new and almost prophetic ways. Soon enough Pat found himself writing, pushed by Sven, what became a ground-breaking monograph issue of Development Dialogue revealing a completely new perspective on seeds and corporate concentration to the world. A symbiotic relationship between Pat’s organization RAFI and the Foundation was born. As Pat and RAFI revealed new issues and prophetic scenarios over the decades, Sven, Olle and the Foundation helped bring new constellations of phenomenal people together to debate and bring these issues and struggles forward into the world. New issues of Development Dialogue introduced a steady flow of new ideas and helped change discourses and the international debate. Naturally, early on Sven was asked to become President of the Board of RAFI, which he chaired with incredible zest for 16 years. There were never any dull Board meetings as far as I understand.
Sven has probably shaped my life more than I can ever really grasp. It was a rewarding experience and a privilege to work with and learn from Sven and Olle over almost 15 years at the old ‘Another Development’ Foundation.
And as the current President of the Board of ETC Group (formerly RAFI) I can similarly speak on behalf of both old and new Board and staff members that Sven’s importance and invaluable marks on the organization cannot be overestimated. The institutional collaboration between the Foundation and RAFI/ETC Group helped to boost the spread of insights, ideas and perspectives emanating from Pat and his colleagues. But just as important were Sven’s sprit, personality, lifelong companionship, rock-solid support and belief in the organization.
We’re all indebted to Sven. He was a trailblazer and will continue to inspire by reminding us of the power of ideas and of connecting people.
(Former Associate Director, Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation
President, Board of ETC Group