18. November 2014

A short tribute to Karl Osner

Robert Chambers, Institute of Development Studies/ University of Sussex / Brighton / UK

Karl’s life achievement has been remarkable. And I cannot know even half of it. But I do have a sense of his extraordinary influence through his courage and success in pioneering and promoting immersions and the Exposure and Dialogue Programme. This was how I came to know him – through immersions in India. Directly through the EDP programme and the EDP organisation, and indirectly through other people and organisations like ActionAid International, thousands of people have been touched in a personally transformative way that would not have happened without him. I remember the Head of Personnel in BMZ, after a SEWA immersion in Gujarat, saying: ‘In recruitment I have been looking for good talkers; now I am going to look for good listeners’. And almost all of us who have had EDP experiences can testify to similar scales-from-the-eyes experiences which will live on in us through the rest of our professional careers. Above all, our experiences underline the value which Karl so powerfully stressed, of living with poor people, and learning from them, directly, experientially, and face to face.
James Wolfensohn’s requirement that senior World Bank staff should experience immersions was surely influenced by Karl. Ravi Kanbur’s immersion with SEWA and his account of Basrabhai and the Master of Mohadi that was part of the World Development Report 2000 on Attacking Poverty –these were hugely influential. It was because of the seeds sown by Karl that a special issue of Participatory Learning and Action on immersions was edited and published. And there were other high-profile events, such as the WIEGO immersions organised by SEWA which others will write about.
Karl never ceased to insist on quality, and especially careful preparation, adequate time with host families, and plenty of time for reflection at the end. He held the line on these, and resisted attempts to make the experience shorter. His several authoritative guides to EDPs have been invaluable in laying down what he knew should be non-negotiables.
Karl was so modest, so kind, so generous and hospitable. He invited me to Freiburg and I stayed with him in his flat in the Black Forest. I treasure the memory of that time, the insights and ideas he shared, the morning we spent walking in Freiburg and the rich detail and history that he shared with me.
Karl’s life has not ended. His legacy lives on in thousands of us working in development who see poor people differently, more fully as people than we would have otherwise, and who have gained insights into realities that would otherwise have been denied to us. And his legacy will continue, and may it flourish, in future activities of the EDP and the other organisations where there have been initiatives to make immersions accepted professional practice.
A great man. Great contributions. May he rest in peace.