?I still haven?t decided what I want to be when I grow up,? says Wardie Leppan with a chuckle.
Leppan hardly seems the type to be suffering from lack of direction. The lanky 50-year-old has a rather spacious office at the International Development Research Centre?s (IDRC?s) head office in Ottawa. He has already spent 2 decades working in development and natural resources and is currently leading IDRC?s Sustainable Use of Biodiversity program initiative.
But one thing that quickly becomes apparent is that Leppan exemplifies the case for not judging a book by its cover.
Behind Leppan?s sleepy, and sometimes bored, expression hides a crackling dynamism and a dry wit. His past experiences have included stints as an engineer, a professional race car driver, and a revolutionist. To see him, most would never guess that he is African or that he was once essentially a political refugee forced to flee his country.
Born and raised in South Africa, Leppan grew up during the apartheid era and saw his country undergo many changes. His parents were involved in the campaign against South Africa breaking away from Britain, and the young Wardie was not unaffected by their influence. At age nine, he performed the first of many political acts of his life.
In an attempt to foster patriotism, his school had handed out small new flags and copper medallions on ribbons for the children to wear on their uniforms. ?I got all the kids I could to pile their flags in the school driveway and burn them,? he says with the nonchalance often given to juvenile misdeeds. The way most people would explain a cookie stolen from the pantry or a cigarette sneaked behind the bleachers. He attaches about as much emotion to the punishment he received: ?Of course I was beaten ? and was nearly expelled from the school.?
Luckily, the episode did not thwart his education and he went on to university, where he studied a practical, but personally uninteresting, subject. ?I got channelled at a very early age into engineering because I was good in maths and physics and because I wanted to be a racing driver and design my own racing cars,? he says.
?When I got to university, I realized in first year that the last thing I wanted to be was an engineer. But at the time I was very politically active and knew I wasn?t going to be able to last very long in South Africa. I was going to have to leave. An engineering degree from the university I was at was internationally recognized, so I figured I should just stick with it.?
He did more than just tough it out. Leppan performed well enough to be offered the opportunity to get a master?s of engineering at Ottawa?s Carleton University. He turned it down initially and headed off to Europe where he fulfilled one of his childhood dreams and began a relatively successful stint as a race car driver.
While Leppan had a taste for speed, he says it couldn?t compare with his need to improve things back home. ?I just think there?s more to life than being a professional sportsman or athlete. I had to eat, think, drink, smoke motor racing and I was far more interested in getting rid of apartheid.?
After a few years in Europe he returned to South Africa and resumed his political activities, but not without a price. ?I got heavily involved in unionizing black workers, which got me into an awful lot of trouble because it was illegal at the time. So I had to leave the country in a bit of a hurry.?
As he had predicted years earlier, his engineering degree acted as a sort of ?get out of jail free? card. He contacted Carleton University and asked if their offer of a master?s degree candidate position was still open. Soon, Leppan was on his way to Canada.
He began to take graduate courses in Carleton?s renowned Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA). He enjoyed these courses so much that once he completed the master?s of engineering, he went on to get a second master?s from NPSIA and embark on what has become a 20-year career in development. ?I guess you could say my political activity sort of pushed me into development,? says Leppan.
To reach his current position Leppan had to pay his dues, working in the areas of food security, community-based resource management, and sustainable ocean resource development in both Canada and abroad (including a 6-year stint in South Africa). It is this gruelling but important work that he says is necessary for anyone wishing to forge a career out of development.
?It?s extremely important to get overseas experience. It makes you better able to emphasize and sympathize what the real issues are. But having a broad education is important as well. You can be a biologist, but having taken some courses and exposed yourself to the political, ecological, and social impacts of development.?
Leppan has witnessed a shift toward this interdisciplinary approach to development during the 20 years that he has been working in the field of natural resources. Increasingly, agencies hire people from a wide range of disciplines and with very varied backgrounds, which allows a number of different perspectives to be brought to any problem.
?[In the 1980s] development was about coming up with technical solutions without looking at the impacts,? he says. ?I think now different agencies, but particularly IDRC, are much more focussed on interdisciplinary approaches.?
As a seasoned veteran, Leppan has encountered and overcome many of the misconceptions surrounding development. Too often, he says, people tend to believe that development is a one-way street--that we in the North are the teachers, and those in the South are to be taught how to do things our way.
?I don?t think that?s the case at all. We have a lot to learn from the South,? says Leppan. ?What we can do is help them get the resources to do what they need and want to do, rather than dictate what they should do.?
There is no doubt that this is what Leppan was meant to do. When asked what he thinks he?d be doing if he hadn?t stumbled onto development, Leppan struggles to answer. After a long pause he ventures with ?Maybe teaching?? He continues with ?Or maybe something in the social services.? It?s obviously not something he?s put much thought into.
Leppan does still race ... but it?s go-karts now.