Hans Singer: The Gentle Giant of UN Economists

Of the many economists who have worked for the United Nations, Hans W. Singer was the one who did more, and for more different parts of the Organization, than any other.1 During his 22-year career with the United Nations, he worked for the Economic Affairs Department (now DESA), helped lay the foundations for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) through his work on the UN Special Fund and the Expanded Programme of Technical Assistance (EPTA), undertook assignments for the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), provided the intellectual rationale for the World Food Programme (WFP) and also spent time with the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), the African Development Bank (ADB), the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the UN Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) and the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).

In fact, this part of Singer's work for the United Nations was mid-career. Before he joined the Organization in 1947, at age 37, he was already well-established in the British university world, having held positions in economics in Manchester and Glasgow, as well as undertaking a diversity of research activities. After he retired from the United Nations in 1969 at 59, he embarked on the third and longest phase of his economic career, joining the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex, where, in addition to research and other writing, he continued to use his skills for the UN -- this time for an even wider circle, including the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Labour Organization (ILO), the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC)*, the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), UNDP, the Islamic Development Bank (IDB) and the World Health Organization (WHO), as well as to the Commonwealth secretariat and many individual Governments. He gave his final lecture at IDS -- on the origins of the 0.7-per-cent target for aid -- a week before his 95th birthday. His last article -- a tribute to Brazilian economist Celso Furtado -- was published shortly before he died peacefully at age 95 in February 2006.

Whatever he turned to, Singer's creativity and versatility came to the fore, moving from careful analysis of the issues underlying major problems to proposals for policy and institutional development to ensure long-run solutions. But he was no hidden-away expert. His ability to establish and maintain close working relations with staff in each and every institution was legendary. He was treated as "our special economist" in many UN institutions, mostly by people unaware that Singer was also being treated in the same way, at the same time, by people in four or five other parts of the United Nations.

Singer came to the UN with a distinguished academic background. He had studied economics in Bonn University under the world renowned economist Joseph Schumpeter, but then in 1933, with the rise of the Nazis, was forced to flee. Schumpeter wrote to the even more distinguished economist, John Maynard Keynes, recommending Singer as a brilliant student. Singer soon received an invitation to continue his studies in Cambridge, with a scholarship. He completed his doctorate in economics in Cambridge -- only the fourth person to do so -- in what he later described as bliss: "Cambridge was the centre of the universe, King's College was the centre of Cambridge, and Keynes was the centre of King's."

After Cambridge, Singer joined two others to undertake a study on unemployment during the years of Britain's depression and mass unemployment. The experience was to have a profound and lasting effect on his later work and career. Along with David Owen, later to become the first head of the UN Economic Affairs Department, and Walter Oakeshott, Singer studied the harsh and painful realities of unemployment in five different cities in Britain, living with poor families and seeing first-hand the psychological and moral, as well as physical, consequences of unemployment. The resulting book, Men Without Work, emphasized these broader dimensions.2 These insights into the human costs and tragedies of unemployment served as a deep motivation for Singer's later work with the ILO.

When Singer joined the UN Economic Affairs Department in 1947, he was soon engaged in analyzing the terms of trade between developing and developed countries, discovering evidence of long-term decline, the results of which he shared with Raul Prebisch of ECLAC* and for which they both became famous as creators of the Prebisch-Singer thesis, explaining the consequences of this tendency for global inequality and drawing conclusions for international policy. Even while engaged in this, Singer put the analysis aside for several months to respond to a request from Maurice Pate, the Executive Director of UNICEF, to write a report on The Role of Children in Economic Development. Shortly after this, Singer became involved in drafting the basic documents for the Committee considering SUNFED -- the proposal for establishing the Special UN Fund for Economic Development -- to provide low-interest loans to poorer developing countries. It was Singer who proposed that it should be called a Special Fund, so the acronym would be SUNFED, not UNFED!

Though the idea of low-interest loans to poorer countries has now long been accepted, it was, at the time, highly controversial. Eugene Black, the President of the World Bank, denounced the idea as "unsound" and against the interests of poorer countries. American conservatives attacked the proposal as a "socialist UN plan to disarm and bankrupt the United States". Singer was attacked personally by Senator Joseph McCarthy -- and he and his family seriously suffered. However, in 1958-1959, there was a total volte-face by the United States. The idea was accepted, but only if the new facility was part of the World Bank. Thus was born the International Development Agency (IDA), which continues today. The United Nations was given a consolation prize in the form of the Special Fund, which a few years later was merged with EPTA to become UNDP. These are all early examples of UN ideas and proposals, initially rejected as foolish or even dangerous, which were later seen to be important, and then adopted and implemented. The UN Intellectual History Project has identified many other examples.3

During the 1960s, Singer contributed to many other activities of the UN: drafting the "Blue Book" on proposals for action for the first UN Development Decade; laying the intellectual foundations for food aid and the WFP; helping to plan for the ADB; and serving as the first Director of UNRISD, then as the first Director of Research for UNIDO. All the while, he was writing analytical and policy papers on a wide range of UN matters, during which he developed the concepts of fungibility and thus the reasons why attempts to focus aid on narrow objectives will usually not succeed. When Singer retired from the United Nations in 1969, David Owen gave a tribute worth quoting, especially for the continuing relevance of its last sentence. "Hans is a rare being, an economist of world repute, a departmental draftsman of prodigious productivity, an exhaustible fountain of stimulating ideas for almost all occasions (providing that economic development or the welfare of children are somehow involved) and a living proof that an international civil servant can play a creative role in the great task of changing the policies of nations."

After the United Nations, Singer continued for an extraordinary 37 further years of professional life in research, consultancy and teaching. Most of the publications produced in his own name date from this period, since his writings for the UN were mostly issued anonymously. Even so, his lifetime contributions were prodigious: over 450 publications, including over 80 reports for 13 UN organizations, many more for Governments and non-governmental organizations, and some 260 articles, many for academic journals. As John Shaw states in his careful and comprehensive biography, the "scale, dimension and diversity" of these publications is truly remarkable.

The analytical and policy impact of Singer's work was very considerable. The Prebisch-Singer thesis changed forever the way trade between rich and poor countries, the strong and the weak, is viewed and analyzed. Though long debated, the thesis is now generally accepted -- and even before this became a necessary point to consider. Singer's contributions to defining policy agendas are too many to summarize. His analytical subtlety, creativity and commitment always led him to explore what could be done, even by reluctant parties. I recall a discussion in the 1970s when Hans Singer was laying out the benefits of the proposals for the Common Fund, putting forward the case for some support from British aid. The British representative commented that, "in any case, we do not think the fund will come into being", to which Singer immediately replied: "Then you could safely offer some financial support!" Almost all his work for UN agencies concluded with specific recommendations for action.

Because of Singer's clear style of communication and persistent relevance, his writings served to make an impact by the third test -- as a focus around which interests could be mobilized. This has characterized his writing on science and technology, employment, redistribution with growth, debt relief and the case for moving towards the 0.7-per-cent target for aid. Finally, some of Singer's best ideas became embodied in institutions -- for instance, his ideas on food aid in WFP, social development in UNRISD, industrial strategy in UNIDO, wider elements of development strategy in UNDP and, of course, the Prebisch-Singer ideas on trade and technology, which still remain a driving concern for work by UNCTAD.

Singer was a committed internationalist and UN supporter through his long professional life. Small in stature, modest in style, but a giant in intellect and creativity, his brilliance in tackling global problems of injustice and poverty provides examples to all economists working internationally and is an inspiration for all in the United Nations to follow. Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary-General, at Hans Singer's memorial referred to him as "a true pioneer and titan in the world of development economics", whose guiding hand is felt to this day in several UN entities, from the Secretariat to UNICEF and the WFP. He leaves the most precious legacy possible: a wealth of insights that will further the cause of development for many years to come and the hope that he gave to the people he worked to help.

1. This piece draws on the excellent biography by D. John Shaw, Sir Hans Singer: The Life and Work of a Development Economist, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002). I have also made use of the extensive interview of Hans Singer in the complete oral history transcripts from UN Voices, available from the UN Intellectual History Project (UNIHP), based at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies, Graduate Centre, City University Graduate Centre, New York, and also of the overview of Singer's contributions to the UN in John Toye and Richard Toye's The UN and Global Political Economy: Trade, Finance and Development, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), volume 5 in the UNIHP series.
2. Full details of all Singer's publications and all those cited here will be found in D. John Shaw, Sir Hans Singer: The Life and Work of a Development Economist, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), pp 303-37.
3. See Richard Jolly, Louis Emmerij and Thomas G. Weiss, The Power of UN Ideas and other publications listed on the UN Intellectual History website www.unhistory.org * *The original acronym for the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean was ECLA. It is now ECLAC.