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En Memoria: Professor Guillermo O’Donnell

It is with great sadness that I learnt of the death of Professor Guillermo O’Donnell in Buenos Aires on Tuesday 29, November 2011.  O’Donnell was one of the most brilliant and influential political scholars of his generation, and an inspiration to generations of students tackling the complex issues of democratisation and authoritarianism.  You can read a tribute to him here by Professor Scott Mainwaring of University of Notre Dame.

For my part, Guillermo O’Donnell was and remains a seminal influence in my work on democratisation, political accountability and human rights.  His conceptual innovations including delegative democracy, horizontal accountability and appointed institutions have done a lot of heavy lifting in my own research on human rights institutions in Latin America.

O’Donnell’s work has been a source of inspiration and an indispensable companion in making sense of a complex and often murky Latin American political landscape. The extraordinary contrasts I observed as a DPhil student fresh off the plane in Peru between Lima (the capital of Peru) and Huancavelica (the high Peruvian Andes) made a lot more sense when looked through O’Donnell’s prism of ‘brown areas’; territory where liberal guarantees and the rule of law are absent and subject to violations by state agents.

In short, O’Donnell’s work has been a gateway to my own more careful examination and appreciation of the Latin American lived reality. In his own words:

The compelling challenge in ‘societies marked not only by pervasive poverty but also, and even more decisively for our theme, by deep inequalities, is how to ensure that the weak and poor are at least decently treated by [state] agents…’

On a more personal note, O’Donnell was a long-term collaborator of my DPhil supervisor, Laurence Whitehead and a frequent visitor to Nuffield College, Oxford.  In my first year as a DPhil student, I found myself in a seminar with Guillermo and was introduced as a ‘horizontal accountability’ enthusiast.  Guillermo graciously expressed an interest in reading my draft work.

Upon emailing it over that afternoon, I received a short message of thanks and thought that might be that. An hour later, another email popped into my in-tray: “I’ve just read your very interesting texts…”

The following Tuesday afternoon we spent the best part of an hour discussing my MPhil study of the Peruvian human rights ombudsman, accountability theory, and where I might take the project as I made the leap to a comparative frame.  Listening again to the recording of the conversation, I am struck anew by his enthusiasm and gentle encouragement: “I thought it was very good, excellent, I learnt a lot…”

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