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Renowned geologist and Nepal expert Hagen dies

Toni Hagen was a good friend of the Dalai Lama Keystone Archive

Toni Hagen, the Swiss geologist and humanitarian expert who dedicated years of his life to Nepal, has died at the age of 85.

Hagen was regarded as a pioneer in the field of development aid, undertaking missions to the Himalayas, eastern Africa and South America in a career spanning 60 years.

As part of the first Swiss mission to Nepal in 1950 – and one of the first foreigners to enter the country – Hagen was instrumental in persuading the Swiss authorities to begin humanitarian assistance to the Himalayan kingdom.

That visit marked the start of an involvement with Nepal, which was to endure for the rest of his life.

His experiences over the years prompted him to write several books on the country, including “Nepal: A Kingdom in the Himalayas” and “Building Bridges to the Third World”.

Working in the 1950s as a geologist for the Nepalese government and later for the United Nations, Hagen carried out the first geographical surveys of the country, charting its mountainous terrain.

Turning point

According to freelance writer and fellow Nepal enthusiast Bernhard Banzhaf, it was during this period that Hagen’s interest switched from the geology of the country to the people living there.

He developed a particular interest in the plight of Tibetan refugees, setting up camps and helping to establish carpet-weaving units to provide Tibetans with work and an income.

“He was a geologist and mainly interested in stones, but when these Tibetan refugees arrived in Nepal he became convinced that people are more important, and he changed his profession profoundly and went to work with the refugees,” Banzhaf told swissinfo.

“He knew Nepal very well… and he knew about the problems, and he started to work with the High Commissioner for Refugees at the United Nations, ” he said.

“He also had the idea to bring some of the Tibetans to Switzerland, and that’s why we have a colony of about 2,000 Tibetans today in Switzerland.”

“He became one of the pioneers who brought the first Tibetans to Switzerland [after the failure of the uprising against Chinese rule],” Christian Ruch of the Swiss-Tibetan Friendship Association told swissinfo.

“He managed to bring approximately 1,000-1,500 Tibetans to Switzerland.”


Hagen’s work in Nepal brought him into contact with many important figures, including the Dalai Lama, and the late Nepalese King Birendra, who became a friend.

In 1984, the king awarded him the country’s greatest honour for his services to Nepal.

But Hagen’s work was not confined to Nepal. As an advisor with the UN Development Programme he led missions to many crisis-hit countries in the early 1970s, including North Yemen, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

In the 1970s he also held a teaching post at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, where he lectured on the problems of developing countries.

In his later years, Hagen devoted more time to writing and developing his ideas about development assistance policy.

He was at times an outspoken critic of Swiss development policy, as Remo Gautschi, deputy director of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) recalls:

“Toni Hagen was always a kind of catalyst because he was always questioning development cooperation, questioning the various organisations involved in Nepal.

“He was questioning our organisation… and that led to sometimes tough, but very fruitful, discussions, and he had until recently an influence on how we operate.”

Better understanding

In the early 1980s, he set up the Toni Hagen Foundation in Switzerland and Nepal to promote a better understanding between the different ethnic groups in Nepal and to promote democracy.

But travelling remained a passion, and he returned regularly to Nepal.

“On April 18 – the day of his death – he wanted to leave for Nepal for his last visit,” Banzhaf told swissinfo. “He was travelling and working until the last minute on his projects and his ideas, so he never ceased working.”

Banzhaf, who serves on the committee of the Toni Hagen Foundation in Switzerland, described Hagen as someone who had very good ideas and was very persuasive.

“I think he will be remembered first of all as one of the last explorers, but also as a great man who had very good ideas about humanitarian aid for refugees and for development.”

swissinfo, Morven McLean

Toni Hagen died on April 18 aged 85.
Hagen was a trained geologist who took part in the first Swiss foreign aid mission to Nepal in 1950.
The information brought back by the mission was to lead Switzerland to begin development aid to the country, particularly for the building of roads and bridges.
Nepal is now a focus country for Swiss annual development aid, receiving SFr20-25 million annually.
Hagen was later instrumental in bringing the first Tibetan refugees to Switzerland.
He went on to work for the United Nations Development Programme and as an advisor to aid agencies in trouble spots.
He was the author of numerous books, including the best-selling “Nepal: A Kingdom in the Himalayas.”

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