David Marsden obituary

Other lives: Social anthropologist who tried to give local people a voice in international development projects

My friend and former colleague David Marsden, who has died aged 73 of cancer, was a social anthropologist committed to involving local people in development projects affecting them, and to promoting equity and sustainability.

He applied anthropological thinking to development issues as an academic in the 1970s and 80s and then as an adviser at the World Bank and European Investment Bank.

David advocated an approach to development that emphasised, in his words, “context, culture, ambiguity, negotiation, trust and understanding risk in different ways”. This was challenging in international financial institutions dedicated to results-based management.

Born in Blackburn, David was the son of Gordon Marsden, a driver for British Rail, and Eileen (nee Wightman), a wages clerk. After attending Accrington grammar school, he studied geography and anthropology at Durham University, graduating in 1968. After extensive fieldwork in Iran in the early 1970s, he completed a doctorate on pastoral nomadism in 1981.

In 1976 David joined the newly established Centre for Development Studies at University College Swansea as a lecturer. He also contributed to a new A/AS level syllabus in world development, which was introduced in the early 1980s, becoming its first chief examiner.

His appointment as manager of the World Bank’s first social development unit in New Delhi came in 1995. He introduced social safeguard policies to ensure that people who were involuntarily displaced from their homes by dam-building projects were not too adversely affected. Project managers tended to view this as creating complications. But the fraught encounters meant that affected people’s voices were incorporated into projects more systematically.

In 1997 he went to Washington DC as lead specialist for South Asia in the World Bank’s first independent social development department. Its mandate was to propagate equity and participation within this fortress of economics. It was a struggle.

David spent 2002 on secondment as research director at the International NGO Training and Research Centre in Oxford. In 2005, he joined the European Investment Bank in Luxembourg as senior social assessment specialist. He wrote social guidance notes for investment loans and created training programmes encouraging corporate responsibility and civil society engagement. He retired in 2007, moving from London to Fareham in Hampshire, and later to Hythe in Kent. From 2010 to 2014 he was a trustee of the Tutu Foundation, whose mission is to resolve conflict.

David was sociable and loved dancing. His first two marriages, to Jennifer Wallum and to Maggi Dawson, ended in divorce. In 1994 he married Anthea Thomas, his companion since 1982. After his retirement they travelled extensively and spent summers in their holiday home in the Pyrenees.

He is survived by Anthea, two daughters Rebecca and Philippa, from his first marriage, a daughter, Katie, from his second, and two stepchildren, Jo and Stefan, eight grandchildren, his sister, Mary, and brother, Roger.

Charles Gore

The GuardianTramp

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