Bill Derman Enjoys a Productive Retirement

bill dermanDr. Bill Derman retired from MSU in 2006, but has hardly slowed down. In fact, since moving to Norway and joining the faculty at the Norwegian University of the Life Sciences (NMBU) in the Department of International Environment and Development Studies (Noragric), his academic life has flourished. He’s started new collaborative projects and published prolifically thanks to funding from the Research Council of Norway. In 2010 he even “retired” a second time (from NMBU which has a forced retirement age), but continues to teach. His research since he left MSU has taken four tracks: land reform and land restitution in South Africa, the migration from Zimbabwe of Zimbabweans to Mozambique, South Africa and Zambia, Integrated Water Resources Management and water governance in Zimbabwe, and water, gender and human rights in southern Africa. This research has led to new international collaborations and new publications. One edited volume entitled In the Shadow of a Conflict: Crisis in Zimbabwe and its effects in Mozambique, South Africa and Zambia co-edited with Randi Kaarhus Harare, came out in 2013. Another volume co-edited by Dr. Derman came out that same year, this one called World of Human Rights: The Ambiguities of Rights Claiming in Africa. This latter book project began with a symposium honoring him on the occasion of his MSU retirement, and features MSU alumni such as Kari Bergstrom Henquinet, Andrea Friedus, and Natalie J. Bourdon.

Dr. Derman’s most recent publication is a special issue of Water Alternatives. He is co-author on five of the articles as well as a guest editor. Additionally, he has co-authored a book with a PhD student at NMBU (Shai Divon) analyzing US development assistance policy in Africa since WWII (Routledge 2017). Their historical analysis demonstrates how the development policy was based upon US strategic interests rather than the needs of people in Africa. At NMBU, Dr. Derman continues to teach on the topics he’s always loved including International Development Studies, human rights and political ecology. He fondly recalls working with CASID and the African Studies Center to teach capstone and graduate courses at MSU. He enjoyed fruitful collaborations at MSU as well, with colleagues such as Anne Ferguson and David Wiley. While at MSU, Dr. Derman served on around 20 dissertation commit-tees and has been gratified to see most of his former students get tenure track jobs.

Dr. Derman’s research has always been driven by a commitment to the rights and well being of poor and disenfranchised Africans, but his optimism about social change is tempered by his understanding of the complexities of their world. While he consistently works for social justice during his research, the results have been partial. In the 1980s, he and colleagues helped halt a dam project in the Gambian Basin which would have had a disastrous human impact, but he notes that it was largely the economic analysis that convinced officials. He also tried promoting a human rights based approach to water in Zimbabwe, and although human rights language was eventually incorporated into the constitution, he questions whether it will be implemented. The customary rights to water he documented remain unrecognized. “Over time you realize you can’t change the power relationships where you work; it’s their lives, connections, and networks.” But the privilege of entering the lives of people has allowed him to observe human resilience, even in oppressive conditions. “In the places I have worked, I see a highly problematic future. But when you scratch the surface and view the lives that people lead it’s always much richer, less bleak, and filled with hidden potentials.”

Click here to read the full newsletter.