Like most disciplines, the field of development economics came into being not because of disinterested intellectual curiosity but rather due to pressing contemporary events. In the late 1960s, one prominent international civil servant and development economist reflected that:
the cue to the continual reorientation of our work has normally come from the sphere of politics; responding to that cue, students turn to research on issues that have attained political importance. Theories are launched, data collected, and the literature on the ‘new’ problems expand.
In the case of development, the cue was the new postwar international order characterised by the demise of empires, the onset of the Cold War, and the birth of several new independent states, the so-called Third World. While the new discipline had a good dose of Cold War hawks, it also attracted many talented economists enticed by the prospect of contributing to the advancement of less developed countries, and to a more balanced and peaceful international outlook.
One such figure was Albert O Hirschman, a German-born émigré to the United States who from 1946 had worked as an economist with the Federal Reserve Board on problems of economic reconstruction and cooperation in western Europe. In 1952, Hirschman moved to Colombia on a World Bank assignment to assist the country’s National Planning Council to implement development policies. The book that distilled that experience, The Strategy of Economic Development (1958), was immediately recognised as one of the most important contributions to development economics, and it made Hirschman famous as a pioneer of the discipline (as well as earning him tenure at Columbia University). [Continue reading…]