Upended development theory

IAN LITTLE ECONOMIST 18-12-1918 13-7-2012



18-12-1918 13-7-2012

IAN LITTLE, who has died aged 93, was a professor of development economics at Oxford and played a leading role in undermining the theory, popular in the postwar period, that the best way for developing countries to promote economic growth is through import substitution and protectionism.

In the 1950s Little had supported the centrally planned policies pursued by the governments of many developing countries. But on a visit to India in 1965, he realised that such policies were leading to economic stagnation. In 1970 (with Tibor Scitovsky and Maurice Scott), he published Industry and Trade in Some Developing Countries, in which he launched a searing critique of protectionism and the fetish of industrialisation at the expense of agriculture, whose damaging effects he chronicled with a battery of facts and figures. He drew attention to the way in which countries such as Taiwan were breaking out of stagnation with policies based on the promotion of exports, and advocated trade liberalisation

as the key to growth.

The book had a huge effect on development thinking and Little was proud that Manmohan Singh, the prime minister widely seen as the architect of India's economic "miracle", was one of his doctoral students. Little went

on to write (with Sir James Mirrlees), Project Selection and Planning in Developing Countries (1974), a manual that has provided a methodology for project selection by the World Bank and development aid programs.

Little was born into a family that

he described as "devoid of any intellectual or artistic distinction". His father was a brigadier-general who, like his father before him, had commanded the 9th Lancers.

His maternal grandfather had been master of the Heythrop hunt and the interests of the other members of his family largely centred on the horse. They hunted, played polo and went racing.

Little did not share their passions and it took him some time to discover where his true interests lay. Eton did "nothing to arouse any lasting interest in any subject", while at New College, Oxford, where he went to read PPE (philosophy, politics and economics) "I took up drinking and gambling and did very little work."

Things improved in his second year when he was allotted Isaiah Berlin as a philosophy tutor: "I remember my first tutorial vividly," he wrote later. "He [Berlin] said, you must write an essay on 'Cogito Ergo Sum'. My Latin was just about good enough to translate. I feebly inquired what I should read. He said, 'There is nothing worth reading. Well, I suppose you should look at Descartes."'

In his memoir Collection and Recollections (1999), Little was typically modest about his wartime service, dismissing it as "intellectually uneventful". In fact, he served as a test pilot and was one of four selected to fly Cierva autogiros, which were used to calibrate the ring of radar stations without which the Battle of Britain could not have been won. He later volunteered to test-fly an auto-giro glider known as the Rotachute. It took several crashes to prove that the original version was unstable.

The career of a modified version, the Rotabuggy (a Willys Jeep converted into a rotary wing glider) ended abruptly after one near-disastrous flight. As Francis Seton put it in a brief biographical portrait , Little's Air Force Cross, "awarded almost posthumously" in 1943, was richly deserved.

After the war Little resumed his studies with new-found energy, graduating with a first-class degree. His drift towards economics began with doctoral research for a study of John Stuart Mill at Nuffield College, where he was assigned the economist John Hicks as his supervisor. "As a result," he recalled, "I started reading Hicks' work on welfare economics and found I disagreed with it. I forgot all about Mill."

After seeing off Hicks' efforts to have his graduate studentship rescinded, Little completed his thesis, which was published in 1950 as A Critique of Welfare Economics. The book challenged the view, propounded by Hicks and others, that it is possible to construct a set of objective criteria to ensure the fairest

and most efficient means of redistributing wealth from rich to poor. Rather, in what amounted to an attack on the pretensions of his own discipline, Little concluded that: "Economic welfare is a subject in which rigour and refinement are probably worse than useless. Rough theory or good common sense, is, in practice, what we require."

In 1952 he was elected to an official fellowship at Nuffield College, which remained his base and where he served as college bursar. He was professor of development economics at Oxford from 1970 to 1976. During his time at Oxford, Little had spells as deputy director of the economic section of the Treasury as an informal adviser to the Indian Planning Commission as vice-president of the Development Centre in Paris of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, then (after his retirement) as special adviser to the World Bank. He was awarded a CBE in 1997 and was a fellow of the British Academy.

In 1946 he married Doreen Hennessey, whom he met at an air force camp during the war. They had a son and daughter and became well known in Oxford for their lavish parties. Doreen died in 1984 and in 1991 he married Lydia Seagrave, who survives him with his children.

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