Professor Sanjaya Lall

Prodigiously productive Professor of Development Economics at Oxford
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The Independent Online

Sanjaya Lall, development economist: born Patna, India 13 December 1940; Economist, World Bank 1965-68, Senior Economist 1985-87; Junior Research Officer, then Senior Research Officer, Institute of Economics and Statistics, Oxford University 1968-93; Fellow, Green College, Oxford 1982-2005; Lecturer in Development Economics, Oxford University 1993-99, Professor of Development Economics 1999-2005; married first Sybil Farmer (marriage dissolved), second 1977 Rani Singh (one son, two daughters); died Oxford 18 June 2005.

Sanjaya Lall, Professor of Development Economics at Oxford University, was in the front echelon of contemporary development economists, and arguably without peer in his own fields of specialisation: technological capability, skill acquisition and industrial competitiveness; foreign direct investment, multinationals and technology transfer; foreign trade regimes, industrialisation and state policy in developing economies in the era of neo-liberal globalisation.

He was born in 1940, in Patna in India. His father was a senior civil servant and his mother a barrister who had returned from Gray's Inn to become one of the earliest female practising lawyers in Bihar. After a brief unhappy entry into schooling in England, Sanjaya returned to St Xavier's High School, Patna. He graduated in Economics, ranked first, from Patna University in 1960, before retracing his grandfather's footsteps to Oxford, where he took a first class PPE degree at St John's College in 1963, then an MPhil in 1965.

He was a stalwart of that passing generation that could afford not to be bothered by a DPhil and chose instead to go straight into research, starting with three years at the World Bank. Apart from a two-year return to the bank in the mid-1980s, Oxford remained forever his home, where he served first as Junior, then as Senior, Research Officer at the Institute of Economics and Statistics for over 30 years; as a University Lecturer in Development Economics at Queen Elizabeth House; as a Fellow of Green College since 1982; and as Professor of Development Economics since 1999. It remained a puzzle why the formal recognition of his high professional reputation and achievements took so much longer to register in his academic home than in the rest of the world, where it was taken as just another one of those curious examples of the arcane ways of ancient universities.

Sanjaya Lall was prodigiously productive. A recent curriculum vitae lists 33 book titles between 1975 and 2003, of these over a dozen being single or co-authored volumes with mainstream academic publishers; there are 75 listed articles in reputable refereed professional journals; another 72 chapters in books; a further 67 reports for international agencies or governments; and yet 27 other articles. Apart from this, he served on the advisory boards of several journals, and notably was the Managing Editor of the new and rising home-grown journal Oxford Development Studies. He was also the Course Director for the MSc in Economics for Development at Oxford University.

His policy-related engagements were equally copious: he acted as adviser or consultant to a wide spectrum of governments and international development organisations, from the World Bank, Unicef and the OECD to the European Commission and the Commonwealth Secretariat; he served as the Principal Consultant to Unctad (the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) on its World Investment Report, and to Unido (the United Nations Industrial Development Organization) on its Industrial Development Report.

It is a remarkable feature that all this output of dedicated research over four decades developed cumulatively out of a small number of large themes - industrialisation, technological change, competitiveness, external economic linkages, and state policy. Lall made contributions in three major areas. The first of these came early in the form of pioneering work on transfer pricing by multinational enterprises, based especially on an empirical investigation of corporations operating in the pharmaceutical industry. It showed basically how multinationals could use intra-firm pricing and accounting mechanisms to siphon out, or invisibly repatriate, profits from their overseas enterprises. This was accompanied by extensive work on the role of foreign investment and multinationals in developing economies, done in part in collaboration with one of his early mentors, Paul Streeten. Lall's fascination with India and the Indian economy led to his opening up a related, highly significant field of work - the phenomenon of Third World multinationals, and developing countries as the exporters of technology.

A second interwoven, but distinctly colour-coded, strand of work was on the development of technological capability in developing countries. Technology has generally mystified economists, and in turn, and true to their profession, economic theorists have tended to mystify technology. Technology is. Technological change happens. But what is "it", precisely? How does change "happen" - mysteriously by itself? Lall stands in a fine line of thinkers who have challenged the black-box, reductionist view of technology in economic theorising. In its place, he attempted to develop over time the notion of the construction of technological capability, whether in an enterprise, in a firm, in an industry, or in an economy. He argued that, far from just "picking" industrial winners, the East Asian tiger economies had carefully and proactively "created" winners through the generation of technological capability and the acquisition of industrial competitiveness.

This feeds directly into a third group of ideas. How should the industrialist, or the policymaker, in a developing country set about generating technological capability and industrial competitiveness? Lall's empirical work carefully scrutinised the validity of the ubiquitous assertions that unrestricted flows of foreign direct investment (FDI) through multinationals would lead to effective technology transfer into the manufacturing sectors of developing economies. Lall tends seriously to question the automaticity of any such benefit transfer; he shows, however, the relevance of an active state policy vis-à-vis the domestic manufacturing and technology sectors.

The importance of the role of the state in generating a successful path of competitive industrialisation was one of the continuous threads running through his work. He did not balk at taking on positions that were unpopular among the neo-liberal unfettered-globalisation school. Very early in his career, he wrote a paper which toyed critically with the notion of dependency. Ever since then, the issue of the viability of autonomous, not autarkic, industrialisation in Third World economies was for him a latent leitmotif. From start to finish, Lall remained a passionate, but scientifically rigorous, advocate of Third World industrial development.

One of the hallmarks of Lall's work was that it bridged gaps that often make an island of the pure academician, including and perhaps especially the theoretical economist. He was consistently an applied development economist, who was out to test, validate or reject, reconstruct or redefine the assumed pathologies of cause and effect in his area of development. However, his interest was not simply in the empirical verification or rejection of abstract notions, but in the construction of a robust applied-economics analytical framework which could provide policy-relevant answers to specific strategic questions about achieving technological capabilities and industrial competitiveness, especially in the context of developing economies.

He also overcame those other clashes of cultures, between social scientists and scientists, between economists and engineers, economists and business managers, academics and practitioners. He made it his business to know how things actually ticked in the field of technological change, not how from the sofa it might be assumed they ticked. He was equally at ease, intellectually and personally, in management boardrooms, as on the shop floor, as in lecture halls and seminar rooms.

Sanjaya Lall grew up an only child with his mother, his parents having separated soon after he was born. Having negotiated a lonesome passage through early life, and then a short failed marriage, Sanjaya found joy, stability and fulfilment through his enduring relationship with his vivacious and accomplished wife Rani, whom he met at an Oxford seminar in 1976 and married in 1977.

Kind and deeply civilised as he was, his instinctive reaction when exposed to any wrongdoing was one of puzzlement. He, like a significant tranche of the British and Indian nations, was an intellectual, emotional and cultural hybrid, often similarly at home, or equally at sea, in either world. Though he embraced British nationality years ago, he would surely have failed any application of the Tebbit test of national loyalty during cricket games.

Keen on opera and classical music, he had also been an accomplished photographer. In the late 1970s he showed me his portfolio of photographs, shot in the previous decade, of one of his recurring subjects - trees, usually in singles, usually bleak though beautiful in a melancholic sort of way. He lived, I feel, in his work, in his family, in their home in north Oxford, and was happiest pruning in Rani's prize garden at the end of a long day of interrogating the data from his last survey. I do not think he photographed another tree after 1977.

Ashwani Saith