Obituary: Paul Howell
Saturday 09 April 1994
PAUL HOWELL's career paralleled the transition from an era in which British colonial power was still exercised to one in which merely influence was sought. Never himself a colonialist, he was remarkably consistent in his own work as an anthropologist and a government administrator working abroad: his foremost concern was always with the needs of the peoples he worked with and with furthering their control over their own political and economic development.
Howell was born the posthumous son of a brilliant brigadier-general, who was killed in action at the age of 38 on the Somme. His mother was widely travelled and, like many of her Buxton forebears, a great defender of human rights. Although various cousins and uncles attempted to fill the gap left by a father Howell never knew, instilling in him a lifelong love for the English countryside and particularly for fishing, his upbringing was peripatetic, and often lonely. Not until his last year at Westminster School were his own abilities uncovered, and he won a Senior Scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge. An early interest in social anthropology took him to the Sudan on a vacation study of the Shilluk of the upper Nile, his first encounter with the river which was to occupy his interest for so much of his life.
He joined the Sudan Political Service in 1938, and remained there when war broke out, serving as ADC to two successive Governor- Generals, then was posted to the south of Sudan as District Commissioner. Here he became fascinated by the Nuer people and his links with them lasted until his death. He differed from many of his colleagues, for he was less interested in exporting a Westminster concept of government and law than in stimulating the local economy within its traditional social framework.
A flair for practical administration did not diminish Howell's scholarly interests. With the encouragement of the celebrated anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard, he took a DPhil from Oxford in Social Anthropology in 1951. His thesis on the law of the Nuer was published in 1954. His deep knowledge of the Sudan was recognised by his appointment in 1948 as Chairman of the Jonglei Investigation, a unit established to assess the impact of a reduction of the Nile's flow into southern Sudan and to identify remedies for this loss. The team was multi-disciplinary and reflected Howell's conviction that only co- ordinated, specialist professional skills could successfully tackle important social and economic issues of this kind. The team's report, issued in 1953, represented a pioneering approach to problems of development in the Third World, one subsequently adopted by consultants and aid agencies all over the world.
After Sudan's independence in 1956, Howell was invited to work in Uganda by the Governor, Sir Andrew Cohen, and his initial responsibilities for anything related to the Nile waters soon widened to include other areas, such as game and fisheries, veterinary and geological services, and regional communications. This involvement in such a wide range of activities stood him in good stead when he moved in 1961, on secondment to the Foreign Office, as Head of the Middle East Development Division (MEDD) in Beirut. There he served eight years in a dual role: advising Middle East officials on appropriate policies on the one hand, recommending to his own government suitable projects for their assistance on the other.
The countries he advised were both poor and, as in the case of Saudi Arabia, extraordinarily rich - even in the pre-oil-boom years. What characterised the MEDD's role was its political impartiality and its reliance on specialist, local knowledge. This was not a traditional Whitehall approach, and there were clashes, but historically the correctness of Howell's approach can be adduced from the subsequent establishment of similar divisions in the Caribbean, South-East Asia, East Africa, and Central and Southern Africa.
The complex politics of his post and the constant travel it required took its toll, and after eight years Howell was happy to move back to England. He joined the emergent University (later Wolfson) College at Cambridge, where he became a fellow and also Director of the existing Course on Development, designed previously for colonial cadets before they took up their posts overseas, but latterly for their native successors after independence. Although this Diploma Course was supplemented by an MPhil course with an established niche on the academic menu of Cambridge, many of the candidates sent by the Overseas Development Ministry were not prepared for the intellectual rigour of the course. Seen as too academic and impractical, the course became an easy target for economies and died after government finance was withdrawn in 1982. Howell remained active in other capacities, and he was especially adept at advising aspiring scholars. In the five years before retirement he served as chairman of the Faculty of Archaeology and Anthropology.
Retiring to Norfolk, Howell continued to work on the issues of development that had first attracted him 40 years before, organising an international conference on the waters of the Nile in 1990, and editing a book on the ill-fated Jonglei canal (which was unfinished when civil war broke out in the Sudan), published in 1988.
An expert fisherman, both on his beloved Wissey, in Norfolk, and for salmon in Scotland, Howell was very active promoting the conservation of rivers. He was a tall, striking figure, and his intellectual clarity and analytic rigour could on first encounter be daunting, but this formidable demeanour belied both an appreciative sense of humour and a selfless and quite extraordinary capacity for helping people.
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