Hans Singer: The Gentle Breeze of Development Economics


  • With thanks to my good friend and colleague Sir Richard Jolly, a great admirer of Hans Singer, who saved me from one or two faux pas.

After a long and illustrious career, Sir Hans Singer passed away quietly in his sleep in February 2006 at the age of 95, lucid and active until the end. All the major newspapers and weekly magazines carried obituaries, all praising his personality, kindness and generosity. In this short article I mainly concentrate on his substantive contributions during a working life which spanned more than seven decades.1

The Early Years

To fully understand the intellectual trajectory of a person, his or her early years are of crucial importance. Hans Singer knew what it meant to be marginalized. He also knew the importance of being helped by friends. Fleeing from Nazi Germany, he found himself in Istanbul; whilst contemplating the idea of opening a bookshop there, he received a letter from Richard Kahn inviting him to come to Cambridge. Joseph Schumpeter, who had recognized Hans's intellectual brilliance while teaching at Bonn, had written to J. M. Keynes to recommend his former student. Hans Singer thus found himself doing a doctorate in Cambridge under Keynes, Richard Kahn and Colin Clark during the exciting days of the birth of The General Theory.

Hans Singer was in outstanding company: as well as Keynes, Kahn and Clark there were Maurice Dobb, James Meade, Dennis Robertson, Austin and Joan Robinson, Pierro Sraffa, as well as a group of exiting and exited graduate students like David Champernowne, Alec Cairncross, V. K. R. V. Rao and Brian Reddeway. Singer and Rao were the third and fourth candidates to be awarded a doctorate in economics from Cambridge, Singer's being awarded at the end of 1936.

There is no doubt that he was doubly lucky. First, to survive the first year of Nazism with the ‘brown shirt’ barbarians at the University gates: Arthur Spiethoff, the head of the economics department at Bonn and an excellent economist, did not permit the Nazis to enter the premises in spite of his right wing tendencies. Second, to have Schumpeter, who was at Harvard by then, contact Keynes before the two fell out. However we may plan our lives, chance, friends and coincidence are more important. This also applies to the ‘choice’ he made somewhat later when entering the United Nations in 1947. Singer had worked for a while in the Ministry of Town and Country Planning in London. David Weintraub, the deputy director of the UN Department of Economic Affairs, suggested that Singer start in the small section on underdeveloped countries, because he was ‘a planning expert’. When Singer expressed surprise, Weintraub pointed at his CV and his spell in ‘country planning’. To an American, this obviously meant national planning! Singer, a very nice man, did not want to disappoint Weintraub and so his lifelong career as a development economist began!

Singer's dissertation dealt with the evolution of urban land values in the course of economic development in England over 100 years. Colin Clark, in his book on National Income (1937), devotes a chapter to urban land values in British national income, and acknowledges that this part of the book was based on Hans's work in Cambridge. Together with W. F. Oakeshott and A. D. K. Owen, Singer worked from 1936 to 1938 on a study of unemployment in England, living with the people in the depressed areas in the final years of the Great Depression. This was a true field study that resulted in a book under the title of Men without Work (1938).

During his years in the United Nations (1947–69) he had a multiplicity of positions. He was director of the development section of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, played an important role in building up the African Development Bank and the World Food Programme, and in the conceptualization (on paper) of the Special UN Fund for Economic Development (SUNFED). In 1969 he was involved in the birth of the World Employment Programme (WEP) of the International Labour Organization (ILO). Parallel to all those activities, he was also a guest professor at the New School for Social Research in New York. During the 1960s he was a visiting professor at New York University and at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He eventually left the UN, and spent his ‘retirement’ at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex in the UK (1969–2006).

The rest of this article will look at Hans Singer's substantive contributions. He produced around 500 publications during his long life, including books, reports and articles. He also wrote numerous book reviews and letters to the editor, and penned thousands of comments for colleagues who asked for his views on their draft books and articles.2

Terms of Trade

Singer's work on the terms of trade in his early period at the UN was his most important intellectual contribution (see Singer, 1950). In his Oral History interview he says that Men without Work had taught him to look at the world from the viewpoint of the underdog: ‘If you look at foreign trade from the point of view of the poor countries, exporters of primary products, what does it look like? And it appears an unequal system that is weighted against them. That was the same way the unemployed in England looked at the unemployment insurance system’.3

Singer worked under the general supervision of Folke Hilgerdt, who, as director of the UN Statistical Office, provided a key link between its work and the statistical work of the former League of Nations on trade. Hilgerdt had been the principal author of Industrialization and Foreign Trade in 1945 that included an appendix on international trade between 1871 and 1938. These data showed that the price index of manufactured articles fell significantly less than that of primary products. However, nothing was made of this in the summary of findings of this League of Nations Report. The statistical base of this report was available for Singer's research.

The Singer study for the Sub-Commission on Economic Development of the UN showed that the terms of trade of underdeveloped countries had improved between 1938 and 1946–48. However, this recent improvement was placed in a much longer historical perspective, showing that between 1876 and 1948 they had seriously deteriorated (United Nations, 1949). This finding was contrary to classical theory. This was already bad enough for certain fellow economists, but the political dynamite came from Singer's further conclusion that underdeveloped countries were helping to maintain a rising standard of living in industrial countries without receiving compensation.

Practically simultaneously with Singer, Raul Prebisch published an ECLA report that was to become famous (Prebisch, 1950). In it he discussed the secular decline of terms of trade, but also drew firm policy conclusions, namely that the international division of labour had to be revised and that industrialization of developing countries was the way to do this. Because of the simultaneity of the publication dates of the Singer article and the Prebisch report, the Prebisch–Singer thesis was born; this is the proposition that the barter terms of trade between primary products and manufactures have been subject to a long-term downward trend. It is now firmly established that Singer was first to show this decline and that Prebisch used the early Singer data and conclusions; Prebisch, however, drew firmer policy conclusions and put the whole discussion in the wider centre–periphery framework.4

Singer has updated his seminal 1950 article on various occasions. In 1989 he published a paper in which he demonstrates how the debt burden has led to ‘desperation exports’ that reduced the terms of trade of developing countries even further, particularly for Latin America and Africa. It is striking that this further deterioration also applies to developing countries' exports of industrial products.5 This led him to an important conclusion, namely ‘that it is not so much a matter of primary commodities versus manufactures, but it is a question of low technology production — whether in primary or manufacturing — versus high technology production’.6

Children and Economic Development

While Singer was working on his study of the terms of trade between 1947 and 1949, a call came from Maurice Pate, the Executive Director of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), to David Owen, Head of the Economics Department and then boss of Hans Singer. He wanted one of the UN economists to take an interest in the problem of children. Singer was asked to look at this. He was preoccupied with his terms of trade study and said to himself: ‘Children, that will be a diversion, and, moreover, children have nothing to do with economics. I am supposed to be a development economist’.7

A few weeks later, he went to Harvard to see his former teacher Joseph Schumpeter. By sheer coincidence he heard a lecture there by a man ‘whom I had never heard of before’, Nevin Scrimshaw, who was a young nutritionist at MIT. In that lecture Scrimshaw explained that malnutrition, especially of young children during the first few years of their life, and even before birth (that is, malnutrition of the pregnant mother), had a permanent and lasting effect on brain capacity. Such children would have a lower brain capacity and develop fewer brain cells than normal children. Even proper nutrition later in life would not make up for this: these children would be permanently handicapped in brain capacity.

When Singer heard this, it ‘struck him as lightning’ that if Scrimshaw was right, it meant that a lot of money spent educating and training these malnourished children in later life would be wasted —‘it has a lower capital–output ratio than it otherwise would have’. Suddenly it dawned upon him that what Maurice Pate wanted was not just a good thing in humanitarian terms: it was also a central thing in development economics. So Singer put the work on trade aside for six months and wrote a report for UNICEF (1947)— one of the first studies on what fifteen or so years later came to be called the economics of human resources. Singer had discovered the importance of nutrition of children and pregnant women, had made forays into the economics of education ten years before it was rediscovered, and became one of the first economists to stress the importance of social development.8 Moreover, he underlined the importance of finding the right balance between investments for the present and future generations. And all in a six month period, in the middle of his other path-breaking work on terms of trade.

Food Aid

Hans Singer played a major role in the creation of the World Food Programme (WFP) in the early 1960s. He was given the Food for Life Award by the WFP in 2001. Singer's has been a dissenting view. Most economists to this day dismiss food aid as inferior to financial aid, and even as going against a balanced development path for the receiving countries. They see it as an American way of giving the impression of being generous while getting rid of food surpluses. And indeed, the idea did come from the American administration, first launched by Nixon during the Presidential campaign of 1959, and taken over by the Kennedy administration after Kennedy's inauguration in early 1960.

Singer was not impressed by the critique. He identified several advantages of food aid. It provides the real resources necessary to expand investment. It can also help setting up food reserves and price stabilization schemes. Moreover, food aid helps disadvantaged groups through food-for-work programmes. Against these advantages stood the arguments of the pessimists: food aid would have negative effects on local agricultural production by depressing prices, and would thus introduce and perpetuate dependence rather than self-reliance.

Singer did not deny that such negative effects might occur, but argued that they are not unavoidable. What must be done, therefore, is to identify the conditions for food aid to avoid these ill effects. With a group of people from IDS, Sussex, Singer elaborated ‘guiding principles’ to that effect, among which we find the following. First, food aid can be useful when food shortage is a constraint on economic growth. Second, it is especially useful when it is a substitute for commercial imports thereby releasing foreign exchange for other development purposes. Third, resources generated from the sale of food aid must be used for development purposes.9

From Employment to Redistribution from Growth

In his field study for Men without Work, Singer stayed with the unemployed men for long stretches. Looking back at that period, he reflected: ‘What this taught me was that one tries to look at the world from the viewpoint of the underdog, of the recipient, the victim. You may get insights into the world that are not open to people who look at the world from the top down’.10

Singer was not, therefore, a newcomer to the problem of unemployment. However, he had to adapt to a whole new situation when he started to look at the same problem in the developing countries. In 1969 he helped to initiate the ILO World Employment Programme; although he started out somewhat shakily by continuing to focus on unemployment, he quickly realized that the main problem was not open unemployment, as in the industrial countries. This was a different and much more complicated issue: the developing countries suffered from an employment problem, including not only open unemployment, but also voluntary educated unemployment, and more particularly low productivity employment, leading to the phenomenon of the working poor, found mainly in the so-called informal sector. Singer was one of the first economists to see this.

Together with Richard Jolly, Hans Singer led the ILO-WEP Kenya employment mission in 1971–72. Its report not only put the informal sector firmly on the map, but also launched the important idea of redistribution from growth (ILO, 1972). Richard Jolly, in his Oral History interview with Singer, describes how Singer presented this idea to the mission members as a unifying theme for the Report, and how he was greeted with laughter, led by Dudley Seers. But the next morning everyone was convinced that this was a novel and path-breaking idea. In his interview, Hans Singer describes how the idea came to him:

Well, like any other economist I thought about the welfare effects of unequal income distribution and that, by redistributing income, you could increase welfare. That was inherent in the Beveridge report. I'd been brought up to study Pigou and inequality quite carefully. I was very impressed by Thorsten Veblen on conspicuous consumption, on the way in which inequality created useless consumption. I was very impressed by Keynes' essays on the Economics of our Grandchildren — where he also said that once you reach a certain income level, further increases in income become useless. The general idea was there.11

Redistribution from growth is different from distribution of wealth in that it leaves this distribution untouched in the base year. It distributes at the margin in as far as it distributes future economic growth more evenly between the different income categories of the population. By stabilizing the income of the top 10 per cent of the population in Kenya, and investing the resources thus gained to boost the income of the poorest 40 per cent, it was estimated that the income of the poorest 40 per cent could be doubled within twelve years. The concept of redistribution from growth was the point of departure for a remarkable study under the direction of H. Chenery, the Chief Economist of the World Bank at that time (Chenery, 1974) — but Hans Singer was already moving off in other directions.

Singer as the Jack of all Trades

Given Hans Singer's long career and prolific published output, a choice has to be made in identifying his most important contributions, and it is inevitably a personal one. Apart from the topics discussed above, Singer has written on the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions, development aid issues, science and technology, industrialization, the North–South question in general, international debt, and much more. He was the first to use the term ‘fungibility’, meaning that international aid could liberate national funds for other projects that donors do not like. He also invented the concept of pre-investment in the framework of the Special Fund (a consolation prize and stepchild of the SUNFED discussion) and later of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) that began operating in 1965. Pre-investment activities include such things as surveys of natural resources, industrial feasibility studies, building of regional and national institutions, and so forth.12

But Hans was also an institution-builder within the UN. He was the driving force behind the attempt to set up SUNFED, which got him into deep trouble with the Americans and the World Bank. The Americans believed that SUNFED would take money out of the American taxpayers' pockets for no good reason (which has some resonance with present-day attitudes in the US towards the United Nations), and the Bank was against SUNFED until it could lay claim to it, in the form of its soft loan window, the International Development Association (IDA). Singer was there at the beginning of the World Food Programme; he became the Director of the Economic Division of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), and Deputy to the first Executive Director, Dr Abdul Rahman. He helped set up the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), focusing on the trade division and commodities; and he was there again at the beginning of UNRISD (the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development) as Deputy Director. The list goes on.

It is difficult to judge the wide variety of substantive and institutional activities that Singer engaged in over his lifetime. One could say that he creatively covered the waterfront of development studies and helped to found several important institutions. Or one might argue that he spread himself too thinly over too many activities. I incline towards the latter view. The price he paid for this is that many of his publications tend to be superficial. We might have expected that a man of his intelligence, insight, education, and exceptionally long active life would have produced a more definitive work on development economics — one in which, perhaps, he would also have taken to task the disastrous policies pursued in the 1980s and beyond. Although there are elements of this in much of his work, there is no single volume which fulfilled this role.

But this does not make him a lesser man. He could not say ‘no’ to those who solicited his opinion or who asked his help with yet another institution. He spent a lot of time with young people — particularly when he moved to the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex — and painstakingly reviewed papers and drafts that were sent to him by literally hundreds of people. Many would say that made him a great and certainly a very generous man.


There are people, like Dudley Seers, who move across a discipline like a hurricane — a hurricane that not only destroys, but also builds up. Others, and Hans Singer is the prototype, move like a constant, gentle breeze, enveloping and fertilizing one subject after another with delicacy and tenderness. They give much to others and take little for themselves. They are the saints of our profession.

Saints are bound to suffer. After escaping the Nazis in the 1930s, Singer was pursued by the McCarthy madness of the 1950s, and was called by the American press and Eugene Black (then President of the World Bank) the ‘wild man’ of the United Nations, because of his involvement in trying to set up SUNFED. But there was also recognition: he received many honorary doctorates and other distinctions and, in good old British tradition, Sir Hans Singer was knighted in 1994 for services rendered nationally and internationally to economic issues. In November 2004 he was awarded the first ever Lifetime Achievement Award from the Development Studies Association. He will be remembered and his loss regretted for a long time to come.


  • 1

    There are two main and partly overlapping sources on Singer's life and work. The first is the published volume by D. John Shaw (2002); the second is the Oral History interview with Hans W. Singer done by Richard Jolly in the framework of the United Nations Intellectual History Project (UNIHP). For more information on the project, see http://www.unhistory.org/. There is also a very interesting autobiographical piece; see Singer (1976).

  • 2

    John Shaw, in his biography, counts 450 publications until around 1999 (see Shaw, 2002: 303–37). But Singer continued to publish until the very last, hence my estimate of about 500 publications.

  • 3

    Transcript of Oral History interview with Hans W. Singer, p. 30.

  • 4

    On this, see Toye and Toye (2004: Ch. 5), in the UNIHP series.

  • 5

    See Singer (2001); this article was originally published as an Institute of Social Studies working paper (no 59) in 1989.

  • 6

    Transcript of the Oral History interview with Hans W. Singer, p. 125.

  • 7

    Transcript of the Oral History interview with Hans W. Singer, p. 35.

  • 8

    He developed this further in his 1951 Ankara lectures in which he underlined that it was wrong to distinguish between productive and social investment: ‘Social investment could be as productive, perhaps more productive than so-called productive investment’. On this, see Oral History interview with Hans Singer, p. 65.

  • 9

    Shaw (2002: 191–92); also see Shaw (2001a). John Shaw is particularly knowledgeable on this subject having written a history of the World Food Programme (Shaw, 2001b).

  • 10

    Oral History interview with Hans W. Singer, p. 29.

  • 11

    Oral History interview with Hans W. Singer, p. 120.

  • 12

    These are all activities that enhance the productivity of capital investments, hence the term pre-investment.

Louis Emmerij is senior research fellow at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and Co-Director there of the United Nations Intellectual History Project. He has been Rector of the Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, President of the OECD Development Centre, Paris, Special Advisor to the President, Inter-American Development Bank, Washington, DC and Director of the ILO World Employment Programme, Geneva.