Professor Sir Hans Singer

Development economist whose unorthodox theories became accepted UN practice


Hans Wolfgang Singer, development economist: born Elberfeld, Germany 29 November 1910; economist, United Nations Secretariat 1947-69, Director, Economics Division, United National Industrial Development Organisation 1967-69; Professorial Fellow, Sussex University 1969-2006, Emeritus Professor 1980-2006; Kt 1994; married 1933 Ilse Plaut (died 2001; one son, and one son deceased); died Brighton, East Sussex 26 February 2006.

Hans Singer had an extraordinarily productive career as a pioneer economist of development and international civil servant. His professional life spanned nearly 70 years, over which his early analysis of British unemployment matured into a wide-ranging exploration of the international and national causes of persistent world poverty. For him, theory and practice were always linked, whether he was operating as a United Nations official or as an academic consultant. He created new insights; and he helped to create new institutions.

Born in the pre-First World War Rhineland into a middle-class family of secular Jews, the young Hans was originally intended for his father's profession of medicine. He studied at the University of Bonn, where he was attracted into the discipline of economics by the engaging teaching style of Joseph Schumpeter, author of The Theory of Economic Development (1912).

When, as a liberal activist, Singer was attacked by pro-Nazi students, he left Germany for Turkey. Then Schumpeter recommended him to John Maynard Keynes for one of two refugee scholarships at Cambridge University. At King's College, accompanied by his young bride Ilse, Hans Singer completed a PhD on urban land values under the supervision of Colin Clark. Singer's main interest was, and remained, in the economics of the very long run, rather than in the short-run economics of Keynes.

The Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple was another important early influence: for him, Singer contributed to a study of unemployment, Men Without Work (1938). He stressed the social and personal loss inflicted by unemployment, as well as the economic waste. This finding has been strongly reiterated by current research on the economics of happiness.

His first appointment, in 1938, was at Manchester University. The Nazis put Singer on a list of those to be arrested after the invasion of Britain, but, ironically, it was the Home Office that interned him briefly at Huyton in 1940. On release, Singer produced a series of expert articles on the state of the German war economy for the Economic Journal. He later worked for the Ministry of Town and Country Planning.

After the Second World War he wanted to resume his academic career in Britain, but in 1947 his new employer, Glasgow University, agreed to second him to the fledgling United Nations, despite his reluctance to go. When he arrived in New York, he knew only Michàl Kalecki, Sidney Dell and David Owen. In the end, however, he served the UN for 22 years with deep energy and commitment and a cornucopia of policy ideas.

Singer made his mark almost at once, with a study of the terms of trade of developing countries in 1948 (published the following year as Relative Prices of Exports and Imports of Under-developed Countries). Using British trade data, he pointed out that (contrary to the classical economists' view) the terms of trade for countries exporting primary commodities had been declining for a hundred years. His study was passed to Raúl Prebisch, of the UN Economic Commission for Latin America, who used it to assert that the metropolitan countries were retaining all the benefits of global productivity increases.

The UN thereby became associated with unorthodox economics, but Singer's sole authorship of the secular decline doctrine - usually known as the Prebisch-Singer thesis - has been recognised only recently. The doctrine caused immediate controversy, was much researched but eventually has been widely accepted - by now even the IMF (the International Monetary Fund) concurs.

Singer was active in promoting the idea of long-term loans at well below market rates of interest for development projects. This was a function given in 1960 to the World Bank rather than the UN, as he had advocated. For this advocacy he was abused by the right-wing US press, and for a time suffered from depression. When John F. Kennedy became President, however, Singer strongly supported the US initiative for a UN International Decade of Development. He was also instrumental in preparing the ground for the launch of the World Food Programme, and remained a lifelong advocate of giving aid in the form of food.

At a time of life when many would welcome retirement, Singer resumed his British academic career at the newly established Institute for Development Studies on the campus of Sussex University. In the 1970s, he led (jointly with Richard Jolly) the ILO (International Labour Organization) Employment Mission to Kenya, which paved the way for further work on strategies of redistribution from growth. This idea was taken up by the World Bank, but abandoned in the 1980s. In fact, it foreshadowed today's development policy concerns with the promotion of "pro-poor growth". The Kenya Mission was innovative in that it stressed the potential of the informal sector of the economy, previously regarded as stagnant, to create employment and reduce poverty.

Throughout his UN phase, Singer had maintained a copious flow of professional publications on all aspects of development, including technical assistance, human capital and the welfare of children. This continued apace while he was at IDS, his personal bibliography well exceeding 400 items by 2002. Nevertheless, he always found time for the many students and overseas visitors who sought him out for discussion and guidance. His generosity in this respect was remarkable, with the result that he was more widely renowned abroad than he was at home.

Singer's manner was ever modest and self-deprecating. He was blessed with a well-developed sense of humour, often exercised at his own expense. Nevertheless, beneath the surface was a quiet firmness of conviction that did not easily yield. It was this combination of approachable gentleness and well-defended arguments that made him such a sought-after interlocutor, as far as I was concerned.

Perhaps because of his diffidence, honours were slow to come. He was eventually the recipient of five academic Festschrifts. Once he reached the age of 80, he received honorary doctorates from the universities of Glasgow, Kent, and Sussex, and from overseas universities in Argentina, Austria and Portugal. Cambridge, however, stood aloof. In 1994, Singer was knighted "for services to economic issues".

Although he never produced a single large systematic work, Hans Singer was a source of insight and inspiration to all who knew him. The breadth of his vision, the sharpness of his intuition and the craftsmanship of his arguments were all outstanding. Fortunately, he was spared the intellectual decline that usually comes with great age. This was evident at his 95th birthday party, when, after I had made a congratulatory speech, he made the case that the mere passing of years was no cause for congratulation.

John Toye

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