Obituary: Eprime Eshag

Heather Joshi
Tuesday 15 December 1998 00:02 GMT

EPRIME ESHAG was a teacher and practitioner of economics who hoped to be remembered as an unrepentant Keynesian socialist. It will indeed be difficult to forget the energy and passion which he devoted to this cause, in his years as a Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford, from 1963 to 1986, and in his work for various international organisations.

He was also remarkable for his unusual origins and eventful life before he came to Oxford in 1963. He was born in Iran in 1918, the son of a Christian preacher in the Assyrian minority from the town of Urmia. When he was only a few months old, the family fled persecution into the Russian part of Azerbaijan, where his mother died. His father and stepmother returned to Urmia in 1926.

In 1936 Eshag won the top scholarship from the Bank Melli Iran to study accountancy at the London School of Economics. His interests moved towards economics and he came to the notice of J.M. Keynes as a man of promise. After a brief period working in the Bank in Tehran in 1946, he left, on a point of principle, to pursue private practice in accountancy in Iran. At the same time he was an active but dissident member of the left-wing Tudeh party. He wrote two influential pamphlets which challenged the leadership, and he soon found it better to return to Cambridge, where he completed his PhD on the history of monetary theory.

Apart from Keynes himself, Eshag became too a devoted and enthusiastic disciple of Joan Robinson. Michal Kalecki was another Keynesian mentor. As he was interested in applying his knowledge in the context of international development, Eshag joined the UN as an Economic Affairs Officer in the UN Secretariat. His nine years in New York ended with two disenchanting field trips to Ethiopia and Zaire, and a confrontation with the UN Secretary- General Dag Hammarskjold.

In 1963 Eshag joined both Wadham College and the Institute of Economics and Statistics in Oxford University. He continued to work for the UN on short contracts, such as a stint preparing documents for the North-South negotiations in 1980, and various studies for Unctad (United Nations Commission for Trade and Development). Much of his research output as an academic is submerged in UN documents, but he also published studies of the problems of macro-economic management in "less developed countries" from all parts of the world: Argentina, Egypt, Tunisia, West Africa and South Korea, for example, often in collaboration with junior colleagues at the institute.

Much of what he wanted to say about developing countries was gathered together in the book he published in 1983, Fiscal and Monetary Policies and Problems in Developing Countries. This has recently been revised and translated into Chinese following Eshag's visit to China in 1988 and a sustained activity in bringing Chinese students to Oxford in recent years.

Development economics was one of the specialities of his teaching, so also was Keynesian and monetary analysis. He imparted to his students the ability to organise their thoughts and, for all his own convictions, did not indoctrinate. He held the Keynesian corner in the Economics sub- faculty while the tide of his colleagues' opinion took a monetarist, micro- economic and mathematical turn, against all of which he vociferously protested. This did not lead to any more resignations or expulsions, merely to affectionate tolerance, epitomised by one colleague who remarked after a meeting: "The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold."

Eshag contributed newspaper articles on economics right up to this year, expressing dismay about the direction being taken by New Labour. Shortly before his death he was thinking of writing against the privatisation of the London Underground.

In 1966, he had set out his views in a tract entitled Present System of Trade and Payments versus Full Employment and Welfare State. This illustrates not only the issues about which he cared passionately, but also the difficulty he had for many years with the correct placing of the definite article in English. This was a topic on which he was willing to take advice, and he did also speak Assyrian, Persian, French, Spanish and Russian - a global man with global concerns.

For all his aggressive manner, he was a kind and caring friend, brother and mentor, affectionate and sentimental behind an assertive exterior. His hospitality in Wadham was notable for the Assyrian cuisine and the caviar he served amid his collection of fine Persian carpets. He also raised money from the Iranian royal family to endow a new library in the college.

For most of his years at Oxford, Eprime Eshag was also an unrepentant man of many girlfriends. He completed his settling down in Oxford by marrying a fellow economist, Linda Lewis, in 1992. Until his short final illness they lived in the north Oxford home that he had named after his birthplace.

Heather Joshi

Eprime Eshag, economist: born Urmia, Iran 6 November 1918; married 1992 Linda Lewis; died Oxford 24 November 1998.

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