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Using the Ideas of Professor Sir Hans Singer to Help Re-shape International Development Policy

Time (GMT +00) 18:00 19:30


Lord Meghnad Desai

Edward Clay
, Senior Research Associate, ODI
Professor Sir Richard Jolly, Honorary Professor and Research Associate, IDS
Professor Raphael Kaplinsky, Professor of International Development, Open University
Simon Maxwell, Director, ODI
Professor Frances Stewart, Queen Elizabeth House, University of Oxford

This was the third meeting in the joint IDS, IIED and ODI 'Development Horizons: Future Directions for Research and Policy' series. The meeting was designed as a memorial to Professor Sir Hans Singer, who died in February 2006. It was chaired by Lord Meghnad Desai. The speakers were: Simon Maxwell, Director of ODI; Professor Raphie Kaplinksy (Open University); Professor Frances Stewart (Queen Elizabeth House, Oxford); Dr Edward Clay (ODI); and Professor Sir Richard Jolly (IDS).

Simon Maxwell gave a brief Introduction, observing how relevant were Hans Singer's ideas to his own current work programme - for example on poverty reduction, aid architecture and the role of the UN. For an account of Hans Singer's life and work, he referred participants to the booklet prepared for the meeting, which included two detailed obituaries of Hans Singer, and also a reference to the biography by John Shaw.

Professor Raphie Kaplinsky talked on the subject of 'Hans Singer on the terms of trade'. In the 1950s, Hans Singer had turned on its head the conventional wisdom that the prices of manufactures would fall relative to those of primary commodities, because of faster growth of productivity in manufacturing. He had laid out the reasons why the reverse might be the case, for example because of lower income elasticities for primary commodities and the development of synthetic substitutes. In addition, the existence of a reserve army of the unemployed in developing countries would hold prices of primary commodities down. From this perspective, the debate was really a proxy for a difference between high and low income countries. For much of the post-war period, the Prebisch-Singer thesis, as it came to be known, was supported by the evidence, with primary commodity prices falling relative those of manufactures. More recently, however, the trend had been reversed, largely because of the impact of China, as both exporter (of manufactures) and importer (of primary commodities). Manufactured prices had been falling, especially those produced by developing countries, and primary commodity prices had been rising. Poor countries now faced serious policy dilemmas, about the scope for industrialisation, about the income distribution impact of a boom in primary commodity sectors, and about the 'resource curse', in which commodity booms tended to be associated with war and corruption.

Professor Frances Stewart spoke about Hans Singer's work on basic needs and human development. She reminded the audience that Hans Singer had been inspired by Keynes' observation that the real resources of a country are its people, and described his work over many years on topics related to human development. In 1965, he had described different models of development, focusing on the 'Antonine' model, referring back to the heyday of ancient Rome and arguing that 'the key concept must be the improved quality of people's lives', with synergy between better quality of life and higher productivity. This was a direct antecedent of the concept of human development. Her own research had shown that human development was essential for change: progress was fastest when growth and human development went side by side; countries which emphasised growth without human development always fell back; but countries which emphasised human development and neglected growth could eventually recover. The human development agenda was changing, however. There needed to be more emphasis on groups rather than individuals (the concept of horizontal inequality); there needed to be a focus on wider human development issues not captured by the relatively limited metric of the Human Development Index; and new policy was needed to constrain the global capitalist system.

Edward Clay described Hans Singer as a real world idealist, inspired by the Kantian ideal of actively working for the rights of others, but also committed to change. This combination was exemplified in Hans Singer's work on food aid. His early work recognised the dominant position of the US in the world economy and its role as a major source of surplus food. At a time when food aid accounted for up to 25% of all official development assistance, Hans Singer contributed to thinking about how to use food aid constructively for development, and also to the institutionalisation and multilateralisation of the flow, especially by helping to create the World Food Programme. Today, however, Hans Singer would have recognised a new reality, in which food aid was a tiny part of aid, and in which most food aid was used for emergencies. Current institutional arrangements like the Food Aid Convention needed to be rethought. Instead, Edward Clay proposed a new 'Humanitarian Aid Convention' focused on the needs of individuals rather than the use of surplus commodities.

Finally, Sir Richard Jolly talked about Hans Singer's work on UN reform, and also children, deriving in the latter case from an early interest in human capital development and his contribution to the early years of UNICEF. He recalled Hans Singer's contribution to the foundation or development of many UN organisations, including the UN Special Fund, which became UNDP, WFP, and many others. He argued that the challenge in 2006 was to reform the UN, but to do so in such a way as to preserve its particular strengths. There were five of these: its capacity for advocacy, based on independent thinking; the channels of advocacy, from UN agencies to the highest levels of government; the image of the UN (for example, UNICEF as a champion of children); the flexibility of the best parts of the UN; and its ability to disagree in public with the Bretton Woods institutions. He thought the recent report of the High Level Panel on System Wide Coherence, 'Working as One', provided a useful blueprint, especially with its emphasis on unified budget frameworks rather than unified budgets.

These presentations generated many reminiscences about Hans Singer's humanity and breadth of interests, and also some lively discussion about the themes presented:

  1. There was some debate about the robustness and durability of findings about the terms of trade, but to the extent they were correct, there were important questions for the human development model. For example, primary commodity sectors tended to be capital intensive, which raised questions about how to deliver both human development and livelihoods for poor people. The service sector might provide one source of jobs, but was obviously limited. Perhaps African countries, in particular, would need to protect their manufacturing sector against Chinese and other competition? As an economist who had 'dissented' from the conventional orthodoxy of the Washington Consensus, Hans Singer might be expected to agree.

  2. When asked about education, Frances Stewart noted that education was a means and an end and that more education should be provided in response to the increasing number of highly educated people in the rest of the world. She also noted that education was a constituent part of what it is to be an 'empowered human'. Raphael Kaplinsky added that the important thing about education was not that it would necessarily ensure a high income, but that being more highly educated than others was an advantage.

  3. It was noted that Hans Singer had worked a good deal on global finance and macroeconomics, a topic not covered in the presentations. He would doubtless have been concerned about the accumulation of surpluses in Asia and about the risk of instability. He was a committed structuralist.

  4. A question was asked about areas of agreement and disagreement between Hans Singer and Dudley Seers. Both had been strongly concerned with reducing poverty. Both had taken a perspective which looked at both North and South and the relations between them. One marked difference was that Dudley Seers had turned against aid, especially in his later years, whereas Hans Singer had not.

  5. Finally, Hans Singer's continual engagement with policy was again emphasised.


In the third meeting in the series the panel discussed the Ideas of Professor Sir Hans Singer and their use to re-shape International Development Policy.

Grimond Room