Sir Hans Singer: The Life and Work of a Development Economist

Anthony Clunies‐Ross (University of Strathclyde)

Journal of Economic Studies

ISSN: 0144-3585

Article publication date: 1 October 2004




Clunies‐Ross, A. (2004), "Sir Hans Singer: The Life and Work of a Development Economist", Journal of Economic Studies, Vol. 31 No. 5, pp. 479-485.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Any discussion of Hans Singer's life must be in part a discussion of “development economics”, the discipline or movement that he did so much to form. What are or were its characteristics, and why has it ceased to have such a clear form over the last quarter of the century?

Hans Singer is one of the few surviving representatives of a generation of economists who were already active in the 1930s. The dates of his publications run from 1935 to 2001. He has had the unusual distinction of numbering among his mentors Schumpeter, Keynes and Colin Clark. He also had working contacts with William Beveridge and William Temple. He was with the economic branches of the United Nations for 22 years, virtually from their beginnings, and was heavily involved in that time with innovations both of thinking and of institutions.

Singer is perhaps more than anyone an embodiment of what “development economics” has meant over its first 30, 40 or 50 years. Some of the reasons are his immense output; his involvement both as a pioneer in the field within the UN and in a great variety of official investigations; his restless exploration of the theoretical and practical implications of certain constant values, beliefs and aspirations; and not least surely his personality and style. He can cut to the sharp and memorable. From each of the few occasions this present reviewer has met him, at least one remark of his sticks in the memory.

John Shaw, an admirer and sometimes a collaborator, has taken on the large task of following through Singer's thought and public activity through the three phases of his life: in Germany and Britain from 1910 to 1947; on the staff of the United Nations from then until 1969; and thereafter his many activities centred round the Institute of Development Studies in Brighton. This is done carefully and intelligibly.

The book, says Simon Maxwell on the back cover, “amounts to a history of development thinking over seven decades”. That is the impression conveyed, but there are some qualifications to be mentioned later. The present reviewer certainly found it informative on the emergence of some major strands in development thought, such as for example recognition of the importance of the informal sector as a result of the ILO mission to Kenya led by Singer and Richard Jolly in 1971.

The section on Singer's UN period also gives interesting historical details on the emergence of development‐directed agencies. Today's struggles and dilemmas over the relationships between the UN and the Bretton Woods institutions and over sources and channels of international funding to help achieve the Millennium Development Goals echo those in which Singer was closely involved in the 1950s. As Shaw presents it, the prolonged and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to create a Special United Nations Fund for Economic Development (SUNFED) nevertheless prompted the establishment by the World Bank of the IDA as a soft‐loan channel, and it led within the UN itself both to the World Food Program and to the UN Special Fund. The Special Fund – for pre‐investment studies, a particular enthusiasm of Singer's – was nurtured into existence by him until Paul Hoffman, the former Marshall Plan Administrator, took charge of it. It would later be combined with the Expanded Program of Technical Assistance to form the UN Development Program.

But does the book capture Hans Singer's all‐important personality for those who have never encountered him except through the printed page? This is hard to judge. Maybe some of the job is done by a living, breathing photograph on the dust cover. Here the grand‐old‐man is looking out at us with a benevolent, probing, and just slightly mischievous smile, letting it be known that any whiff of hypocrisy – what Chesterton called “the easy speeches that comfort cruel men” – will continue to have a hard time. (The IMF insists on abolishing food subsidies, I once heard him say, and where do you find subsidized food? At the IMF headquarters.)

The early story is strange and fascinating: how Singer as a student in Bonn, drawn to economics by Schumpeter, had been obliged (being both Jewish and forthright) to leave Germany in the year Hitler came to power; how Schumpeter recommended him to Keynes and as a result Singer received a 2‐year scholarship at Kings Cambridge; how he risked a return of 3 days to Germany to marry Ilse Plaut, who was to be with him for the next 67 years; how, after a variety of assignments in Britain, in contact with the giants of wartime and post‐war visionary reform, he went unwillingly and almost by accident to the UN, ostensibly for 2 years, and there, through another accident arising from a linguistic confusion, reluctantly became one of the three people at the Department of Economic Affairs working on developing countries. In the upshot, not only did his stay at the UN extend to 22 years; his commitment to developing‐country economics has run over more than half a century.

Among several interesting photographs in the book, one is particularly memorable and poignant. This is of Hans and Ilse at Hildesheim on the day of their wedding in 1934 – the wedding that had to be despatched on a flying visit, with no time to lose.

The author emphasizes the extent to which Keynes, and less obviously Schumpeter, continued to influence Singer's thought through his career, mentioning in particular Keynes's revolutionary readiness to formulate a new economic model when reality had departed too far from the assumptions of the standard model. Shaw sees Schumpeter's influence in Singer's recurring preoccupation with the role of technology in development and in elements of what could perhaps be summarized as disequilibrium thinking.

More generally Singer maintained – right through the unsympathetic last quarter of the century – the emphasis, in the economic thinking of the Keynesians and of 1940s Britain, on distribution as against simply allocation questions in policy. He continued to believe that much of the vision that Keynes had brought to the Bretton Woods International Monetary Conference in 1944 – contrasting in part with what actually emerged – was of current relevance, even the idea of a commodity standard for currencies. He, and “development economics” with him, has stressed aggregative, “macro” economic thinking: again a feature of the Keynesian revolution. He was also wont to hark back for lessons to the Marshall Plan, in the course of which the United States, over 4 years, provided not 0.1 per cent, not 1 per cent, but, more like, 3 per cent of the value of its own national income for European reconstruction. Singer never threw off the influence of those elements of optimism and generosity – of what now seems a large and liberal view – that played a part in British and American policy in the immediate post‐war period. And, despite disappointments, one has the impression that he derived some satisfaction from the response of the international community to the challenge of development through the 1950s and 1960s, broadly his period at the UN.

Singer's best‐known contribution to thought about the economics of developing countries – the one to which his name is applied together with that of Rául Prebisch – is the recognition of a long‐term decline in the (net barter) terms‐of‐trade of primary products in relation to manufactures, and consequently also a decline in the terms‐of‐trade (the ratio of export to import price‐index levels) of many developing countries. Despite movements over certain periods in the opposite direction and the problems of deriving meaningful price‐index series over 150 years, the long‐term trend appears to have held, according to a variety of interpretations, on the most recent tests, as Shaw details the testimony (pp. 67‐8).

What it signifies, and its implications for policy, are more controversial. Is the lesson that the primary‐exporting nations should move heaven and earth to shift into manufactures (or services)? Or is it that they should be compensated by those who benefit from this effective levy made upon them? Both these possible corollaries link closely with what Shaw tells us were Singer's two answers in the early 1950s to the question “what is the engine of growth?”: “a shift from primary products to manufactured goods and the development of a system of international aid”.

Singer appears to have become less concerned with this trend (p. 65) in the terms‐of‐trade and more with the understanding of relative prices that the effort to explain the trend threw up: that the poor had in effect to sell their services at a lower price than the rich. “He found support for his original contention that the relevant question was not what the terms of trade are compared with what they were, but what they are compared with what they could and should have been” (the biographer, citing Streeten). Singer saw the tendency, and the existing relative‐price picture, as part of a pattern of disabilities that developing countries suffered, one that also involved the way that the benefits of international investment were shared and the implications of the fact that most technological innovation took place elsewhere. Singer's position (p. 64) was far from simplistic and far from ignoring the benefits of trade. It was rather that the power positions within and between countries would mean that there might not only be positive comparative‐advantage and engine‐of growth impacts of trade but also negative “backwash” effects, so that the gains would be at best unequally distributed. He returned to the subject, most recently in 1998, recognizing that much of the developing world had by then ceased to be predominantly primary‐exporting but giving reasons for believing that not only the static disability, but also the declining trend, of developing countries in their terms‐of‐trade continued to hold, even for countries that were predominantly exporters of manufactures.

The picture into which this fitted was one in which the natural tendency was divergence rather than convergence between rich and poor nations. Just as the pattern of international development thinking of which Singer has been the star representative can be optimistic about what might be possible with concerted remedial international action, it is inclined to be pessimistic about what will happen to the developing world left to itself. Without external intervention, vicious circles will continue to operate.

Is the Singer story, presented so carefully by Shaw, a balanced history of development thinking? Surely an important element is missing. There is, as far as I can see, barely any readiness to face the implications of the Asian industrial revolution, which extended from East Asia to much of Southeast Asia and less spectacularly to much of South Asia, beginning with stirrings in the mid‐1960s and evident by the 1980s in states covering more than half the people of the low‐ and middle‐income countries. This large slice of the world's population has been reducing its proportional gap in income with the old‐industrial countries. One could read Shaw's book without realizing that this had happened or at least that economists interested in developing countries had noticed it.

We find Singer in 1998 apparently arguing that price relationships, in spite of the move of so much of the developing world to exports of manufactures, helped explain why the gap was continuing to grow. “There was no visible tendency towards convergence”, says Shaw, writing of the view in the late 1990s. “There were some notable exceptions to this simple picture of divergence”, he admits. “There had been some conspicuous examples of catch‐up by initially very poor countries, such as Korea and Taiwan, supported by massive foreign aid.” This might have been fair comment in 1975, though even then the “massive foreign aid” was past history. But written in 2001 referring to the picture in 1998, it has a Rip Van Winkle quality. China and India can not be entirely ignored, though Shaw refers to their growth almost as if their huge weight in the world's population is a statistical anomaly and they might reasonably count no more heavily in the picture than Burkina Faso and Equatorial Guinea – and anyway who knows (p. 69) whether China's apparently unprecedented growth rate over 25 years is “sustainable”?

Of course the proportional gap with developed countries has still been growing for much of Africa and probably in aggregate for those countries that have remained specialized on primary exports. But the famous trend in the terms‐of‐trade, latterly extended to cover among the victims developing countries that are primarily exporters of manufactures, is surely now being used to explain too much. Like it or not, explain it as you may, patterns of growth across the world did change radically in the last quarter of the century. A uniform or prevailing picture of continuing divergence between rich and poor countries would now be grossly misleading – at least as much so as one of convergence. None of this is to justify in the slightest way in which the rich world over this period has dealt with aid or debt or disease or trade barriers or export instability. Fair remains fair. But ignoring what has happened in virtually half the world – for all its flaws, for all the unanswered questions that it has thrown up – would be quixotic. To return to the point, I don't believe it is characteristic of how economists studying developing countries in recent years have been thinking.

This raises the question whether we should think of “development economics”, in the sense in which the term was understood in the century's third quarter, as synonymous with the economic study of developing countries. Or was it an intellectual movement that we can now speak of in the past tense? Development economics was quite wide and free‐ranging, throwing up original concepts and models – such as those of Lewis, Myrdal, and Todaro – that seem likely to have a permanent value. But maybe there were implicit limits bounding the broad beliefs about the world and approaches to economic policy that fell within the tent. Peter Bauer, though undoubtedly a student of the economics of developing countries, may not naturally have been classified “development‐economist” on the ground that his views were so far from the mainstream. In other words, the concept “development economics” may have carried with it an element of ideology.

The social sciences, and other studies with strong human implications, are prone to seduction of this sort. An intellectual fashion, sometimes with a strong value bias, may virtually take over one of the disciplines for a period. Mainstream economics itself has not been exempt from fashions that for periods have conditioned which models are thought worthy of consideration. A sub‐discipline such as development economics, associated with characteristic experiences among its practitioners, is perhaps especially likely to be susceptible.

To take a more extreme case: in more recent years we have seen “ecology” does double duty as a science and a religion. It even has a priesthood. The “odium theologicum” attracted by Lomborg's ultra‐cautious book of 2001, The Skeptical Environmentalist, threw up among other accusations the complaint that he was not an ecologist and yet had dared to differ with those who really knew. Ordinary methods, such as statistics, for testing hypotheses about what relates to what were not good enough. You needed to be among the initiates in order to be competent to judge. After all, only a doctor can tell you that you are sick.

Fortunately development economics never moved so far in the cultic direction. There was a period in the 1970s when it looked briefly as if the wider field of development studies might be taken over by an oncoming generation of neo‐Marxists. The fashion among this tendency was to be pessimistic about everything – aid, investment, trade, entrepreneurship, government – except perhaps Cuba or North Korea. But the fit passed.

Hans Singer is a prophet in the biblical sense. He starts from a strong moral position and moves from there to what ought to be done. Of course he is, in a famous phrase, more than a prophet. He has been an unresting and creative intellect and observer, seeing what no one else has seen, recognizing others' insights, propounding and skilfully advocating new concepts and devices. Where the demands of justice and events point in the same direction, the prophet who is also a brilliant social scientist can be an excellent guide. But, for all of us and particularly for prophets, it may be hard to change direction when events take an unexpected turn. The stronger the moral force behind a particular conceptual or practical position, the less easily it can be modified. If Shaw accurately represents Singer's position in recent years over convergence‐divergence, this is perhaps what has happened.

At the same time, as Shaw shows, the focus on commodity prices has provided an important critique for some time of Washington Consensus advice: one, he appears to be saying, that has been eventually heeded by the IMF and World Bank. Expanding the export of a primary commodity by several countries simultaneously may well reduce, rather than increase, their earnings from it. This is first‐year economics and logically does not depend on the Prebisch‐Singer thesis. But one of the strengths of the central tradition in development economics, with its Keynesian roots, is aggregative thinking and suspicion of the fallacy of composition.

The Singer story gives an important clue to why development economics took the form it did. That clue is wartime and postwar Britain. “Planning” during the war, all‐pervading central control over the economy, had seemed not only necessary but beneficial. It had meant that children were better nourished than before – despite food shortages and the intense pressure on resources of all kinds. The period immediately after the War showed the possibility of engineered full employment with restrained inflation. Together with the welfare state – redistribution and social insurance – full employment transformed the lives of the masses. And then the Marshall Plan had shown the miracles that could be performed with generous international aid. By contrast traditional Anglosaxon economics, focused on the micro, appeared to have prescribed only inaction or positively counterproductive action in the face of the interwar waste and misery. The aggregative thinking of the Keynesians seemed to vindicate common sense and to de‐mystify even the international monetary system. And Soviet planning had generated at least rapid industrialization, which, as Shaw mentions, was held at this time to be virtually synonymous with development. So development economics started with the dispositions that Singer has maintained in some degree throughout: optimistic about what can be done with aggregative planning, reform of the world system of payments, and international aid; pessimistic about what will happen with laisser‐faire, national or international.

A high point of this outlook at its most visionary is provided by the story (pp. 167‐8) of Singer's back‐of‐the‐envelope idea vented one evening in Nairobi for “redistribution from growth” in Kenya. It was essentially a set of numbers showing how there could be significant and prompt improvement of the position of the poor in Kenya without sacrifice on the part of any other class. Singer's colleagues on the employment mission at first “rocked and roared with laughter” but by the next morning had come round to the idea. But (one is tempted to say “of course”) what was projected did not happen. The scheme was perfectly rational. The concept of “redistribution with growth” became orthodox during Macnamara's time at the World Bank. Yet today, in face of our less optimistic views about both the powers and the dispositions of governments, the idea that Singer's scheme might actually happen roughly as projected has an old‐world character – quite apart from the fact that economic growth, in Kenya as in so much of the world, turned out in 1971 to be much lower than had been envisaged.

Development economics was importantly, though not solely, about economic growth. Yet the secret of how to generate rapid economic growth remains elusive. We can enumerate confidently some of the elements that hinder it: wars, corruption, endemic diseases, probably instability in export earnings. But no one really knows how to engineer per‐capita growth that is consistently in the region of say 5 per cent or more per year. We know that growth at these rates can happen and continue over long periods. Policies would surely have been relevant to such outcomes. But “planning” development, in the meaning in which the term was commonly understood in the 1950s and 1960s, did not seem to have been a part of the successful recipe. National plans of this sort and actual growth were apparently proceeding on separate tracks. Planning in the sense of looking ahead – making the best possible projections and enumerating policies consistent with them – was of course highly desirable. But the idea of planning as a kind of growth‐generating alchemy, there to be adopted by any government with enough determination, slipped out of sight. This became more obvious than ever in the 1980s and 1990s when the Asian growth phenomenon contrasted so sharply with the increasing misery typical of Africa and the stormy fortunes at best of Latin America.

We can look back on the last quarter of the century and imagine a combination of

  1. 1.

    international measures entailing no great sacrifice for the rich world, with; and

  2. 2.

    more prudent and responsible national policies on the part of some of the sufferers, that might have made this a very much better period for those parts of the developing world that came out of it as victims.

But there is still no magic formula for growth. Factors difficult to pin down – history and culture perhaps – seem to play a large part in interacting with any internal or international policies. The wind to some extent bloweth where it listeth.

There have been so many strands and subjects in Singer's thinking – science and technology, the welfare of children, food aid and food security, growth and distribution, debt, international aid – most given at least a chapter in the book, that an attempt to summarize the whole achievement in a review such as this would be excessive. The story is of a remarkable life, a remarkable mind, driven by the most admirable values – with, let's hope, the remarkable personality behind them leaving some marks on the record for posterity.

Related articles