[OPE-L] Hans Singer (1910-2006)

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Tue Apr 04 2006 - 09:05:39 EDT

EPW Commentary March 25, 2006

                  Tribute: Hans Singer (1910-2006)

                  Doyen of Development Economics

                  Hans Singer's seminal work on the terms of trade was the
fulcrum of several interrelated concerns he took up with
a view to secure distributive justice for developing
countries. In the death of this pioneer development
economist, the third world countries have lost a close
friend and a mentor.

                  Rameshwar Tandon

            With Hans' death on February 26, 2006, the world has lost one
of its most respected development economists whose
professional career lasted 70 years. For several decades Hans
worked with great energy and commitment in the interests of
the third world both as an economist and as an UN official. He
was a pioneering thinker of astounding productivity and
extraordinary creativity and had an unshakeable commitment to
the third world. He is regarded as one of the great innovators
in development economics, whose name is linked with Raul
Prebisch for the documentation of the declining terms of trade
of primary commodities. For me, it is a proud privilege to
have been associated with him for various studies for the past
two decades. With his collaboration, New World Order Series
was launched in mid-1980s and this summer its 25th volume will
be released.

            Development Economist

            Hans described himself as an aspirin product, to use a phrase
of his, because his father was a doctor and his mother a nurse
who met in connection with medical research at Bayer. He
belonged to a Jewish minority in a protestant enclave in the
catholic Rhineland and was a witness to the German defeat in
the first world war, Ruhr occupation, the German
hyperinflation and the great depression. These economic shocks
turned Hans Singer's interest towards economic and social
problems. It is from Joseph Schumpeter in Bonn that he learnt
those first lessons which helped him as a development
economist; in part, the emphasis on the importance of
technology and innovation and partly viewing development as a
dynamic and revolutionary force - "the creative destruction".

            Early in l933, Singer received a warning from Spiethoff that
the Nazis were planning to raid the faculty of economics at
Bonn. Singer first fled to Switzerland, then to Turkey and
finally in early 1934 reached Cambridge and was granted a
stipend to begin his life as a doctoral student officially
under J M Keynes. In Singer's words, there was never any doubt
that Cambridge was the intellectual centre of the universe.
While the inner circle around Keynes comprised such brilliant
economists as Colin Clark, Richard Kahn, Austin Robinson and
Piero Sraffa; an outer circle consisted of such research
fellows as V K R V Rao, Alec Cairncross and Singer himself.

            When asked what he learnt from Keynes, Singer's unhesitating
response was everything; more precisely, the macroeconomic
view, the importance of thinking in real as well as in
monetary terms, an emphasis on demand, the desire to put human
resources in the centre and an implicit belief in man's
ability to control his destiny (planning).

            How Singer began his career as a development economist at the
United Nations is an interesting story. He attributed it to
his sources of inspiration - Spiethoff, Schumpeter and Keynes
- and his abiding interest in the study of unemployment and
backward areas. On his arrival in New York, Singer was
received by David Weintaub; he knew that in Great Britain,
Singer worked at the ministry of town and country planning.
Since in American vocabulary, country planning meant planning
for whole countries, Singer was given the job of doing just
that. Within the UNDP, Singer had two responsibilities - to
study the terms of trade in the developing countries and to
organise soft aid. For the latter, Singer organised the United
Nations Fund for Economic Development (UNFED), an unfortunate
choice of acronym which was fortunately changed to SUNFED by
adding a "special".

            Essential Life

            As John Shaw tell us in his biography1 there have been three
main epochs in Singer's long and eventful life: first, the
period as a student and young economist up to the age of 27,
second period, working at the UN between l947-69 and the third
period, as a professorial fellow in the Institute of
Development Studies (IDS) and as an emeritus professor of
economics at the University of Sussex, UK from l969 to 2006.
He was a prolific writer; as John Shaw lists 450 books,
reports and articles, backed by innumerable number of
newspaper articles, letters and reviews. His archives are in
the IDS, Sussex library.

            Those who believe in destiny will be fascinated by what John
Shaw calls the "twists of fate" that led Singer to leave the
mainstream of economists and join the then tiny band of
development economists: his decision in 1929 to switch from
study of medicine to economics at Bonn University in Germany,
where he came under the spell of Joseph Schumpeter and his
economics masterpiece, The Theory of Economic Development; the
award of a scholarship to finish his PhD work at King's
College, Cambridge University, where he came under another
spell of J M Keynes, precisely at the time when Keynes was
producing his masterpiece, The General Theory of Employment,
Interest and Money; his first employment after Cambridge on
the Pilgrim Trust Unemployment Enquiry in the depressed areas
of UK (l936-38); his friendship with David Owen who, nine
years later, managed to lure Singer away from Glasgow
University to the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of
the newly created United Nations, of which Owen was the head.

            During his 22 years at the UN, Singer held many different
positions, helped initiate several new UN programmes and led
many UN missions to developing countries. Among many major
initiatives in which he was involved were the UN Fund for
Economic Development (SUNFED), which led to the creation of
International Development Association (IDA), the soft loan arm
of the World Bank; the UN World Food Programme; the United
Nations Development Programme, the UN Research Institute for
Social Development, the UN Industrial Development
Organisation, the African Development Bank and helped change
the focus of UNICEF from an emergency fund to an organisation
concerned with long-term interests of children. Singer was
involved in the establishment of the World Employment
Programme at the UN International Labour Office, launched in
l969 and co-led the ILO employment mission - Kenya in l971-72,
during which he produced his concept of "redistribution from
growth" as a means of reducing poverty, which (in modified
form) became the signature concept of the World Bank's
approach to poverty alleviation under the presidency of Robert
McNamara. As a dissenting economist, Singer differed from the
popular view that food aid was counterproductive because it
discouraged domestic production, disrupted trade and
reinforced governments' neglect of agriculture. As he put it,
there is nothing innately wrong with food and like other forms
of aid, it all depends on how food aid is provided and used.

            Prebisch-Singer Thesis

            Hans Singer is internationally known for his landmark analysis
of terms of trade between industrialised and developing
countries carried out between l948 and l950. Raul Prebisch
used his work in what later became known as the
Prebisch-Singer thesis, which showed that the net barter terms
of trade between primary products and manufactures have been
subject to a long-term downward trend. Singer's original paper
was based on a paradigm of the commodity markets in which less
emphasis is placed on traditional neoclassical competitive
markets and more on the bargaining and financial power and
control of marketing, processing and distribution. He argued
that economic history had been unkind to developing countries,
since most of the secondary and cumulative effects of
investment from the developing country in which investment
took place went to the developed country. He emphasised the
structural differences between the countries where increased
efficiency of production led to higher incomes, and those
where it led to falling product prices.

            Singer later had "revisited" his pioneering distribution of
gains from trade and investment thesis on several occasions
when he gave more emphasis to relations between different
types of countries, rather than types of commodities and to
the distribution of "technological power". Hans Singer argued
that the character of technology available on the world market
was a major obstacle to the unleashing of multiplier effects
from local investment because it was neither labour-intensive
nor did it employ much local labour in investment goods
production. The Prebisch-Singer thesis has created a growth
industry in the development economics studies. Being in direct
contradiction with the prevailing orthodoxy, it is not
surprising that the thesis has attracted criticism from a
number of quarters, but subsequent studies have largely upheld
Singer's work, leading to the conclusion that there can be few
hypotheses in economics which have stood the test of time.

            Singer's seminal work on terms of trade has been the fulcrum
of several other and interrelated concerns he took up with a
view to secure distributive justice for developing countries.
Throughout his long career, his concern was with what he
called the "seven pillars of development", which were included
in his Dean Hudson Memorial lecture at Long Island University
as long ago as in l964 and should be underlined again:
            (1) Industrialisation, as means of breaking out of the trap
that concentration on primary production has created for
long-term development;
            (2) Science and technology, from capital-intensive to
labour-intensive, to take account of the structural
differences between developed and developing countries;
            (3) Investment in human capital and children, with the
realisation that the capacity for advancement and to create
wealth lay inherently in people;
            (4) Planning, in order to utilise the scarce resources of
developing countries effectively, by the governments with the
capacity to carry out realistic programmes with achievable
            (5) Trade and aid, including technical assistance, food aid
and pre-investment to maintain investment in development in
the face of unsatisfactory export earnings, and to release
many latent investment opportunities in developing countries;
            (6) Regional cooperation, as many developing countries are too
small to create viable economic entities and their borders
were determined by political and diplomatic history rather
than by economic factors; and
            (7) International economic order with multilateral global
governance, which could ensure a fair distribution of fruits
of progress in the realisation that the elimination of poverty
and a better distribution of well-being are in the enlightened
self-interest of all.

            For all of us in the third world, his death has taken away a
close friend and mentor - who, no matter how busy, was somehow
always able and willing to find time for others, especially
students and younger colleagues. He lived a life that only a
few have - escaped from Nazi Germany, studied under Schumpeter
and Keynes, his pioneering career as a development economist
and as an institution-builder within the UN. The story of his
life could be called as "from the Third Reich to the Third

            Email: rameshwartandon@rediffmail.com


            1 Sir Hans Singer: The Life and Work of a Development
Economist by D John Shaw, Palgrave-Macmillan, London, 2002.

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