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WIDER Annual Lectures – Taking Stock

I am looking forward to WIDER Annual Lecture 18, held 18 November in New York not only because I expect that Peter Timmer will make a distinguished contribution to the understanding of economic transformation, but also because the cumulative impact of this lecture series provides a comprehensive overview of the major economic issues of our day. 

During my active association with UNU-WIDER over the past three years, I have been an enthusiastic promoter of the annual lectures by Justin Yifu Lin (AL15) and Lant Pritchett (AL16) in particular.  Wherever possible, I have pressed a copy of the publication into the hands of friends and associates, or recommended them where appropriate in academic discussions.

But it had not occurred to me until now to dig deeper and review the entire series. As a practical lesson in manufacturing and globalization, I bought a cut-price pullover (predictably enough, made in China) against the early winter chill (yes, snow already threatening in parts of Finland) and locked myself in with the entire series to sit down and see what I can learn in these long dark evenings.

The series merits careful study

All the lectures are available on the WIDER website as electronic publications. A lot of them have also been videoed. The latest one by Martti Ahtisaari (AL17), Nobel Laureate and former President of Finland, on the importance of the Scandinavian model can be found here. I can virtually guarantee that anyone who works through the series will learn a lot. You will certainly be stimulated to think new thoughts and make connections not considered before.

The lecturers were already well known when they gave their lectures. Their views continue to develop, and their achievements gain further recognition. One was already a Nobel Prize laureate in ‘economic sciences’ at the time of their lecture (Douglass North AL1), another (Joseph Stiglitz AL2) was recognized later (2001). President Ahtisaari, one of the key people in the founding of this Institute, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008. 

Kaushik Basu (AL7) has become Chief Economist of the World Bank. Nancy Birdsall (AL9) as founding president of the Center for Global Development has seen her brainchild rise in impact. The Annual Lecture is usually a wide-ranging thesis requiring detailed evidence and capable of generating diverse interpretations. The speakers represent a range of views. Imagine them all in one room. Bhagwati’s (AL4) advocacy of free trade would generate lively debate from other lecturers. Whereas Angus Deaton’s (AL10) views of the time might generate less controversy than his 2013 book-length elaboration on ‘health, wealth, and the origins of inequality’.  There he claims that ‘… most external aid is doing more harm than good’. While this claim would generate heated debate, his core thesis would be more widely acceptable: ‘The greatest escape in human history is the escape from poverty and death’.

The themes make a compendium of the ‘big issues’ of development

The ‘deep history’ of development has often been a feature. From Deepak Nayyar (AL12) we learn that Asia, Africa and Latin America in the year 1000 ‘accounted for 82 per cent of world population and 83 per cent of world income’. The industrial ascendancy of Europe and North America has been a recent and relatively short period in economic history (150 years from the mid-nineteenth century on). With the rise once more of Asia, Nayyar was looking for ‘the future in the past’. 

Similarly in the following year Ronald Findlay (AL13), looking at trade and development, presents a long-term economic history divided into four periods: 1000-1500; 1500-1870; 1870-1914, and the century from 1914. Jeffrey G. Wlliamson’s (AL6) review of winners and losers in globalization covers two hundred years.

Against the background of this long-term economic history, it is instructive to read Dani Rodrik (AL8) advocating ‘the diagnostic approach’ to growth as superior to the ‘laundry list approach to reforms’ of the Washington Consensus. Lin’s approach to transformation emphasizes that the ‘new structural economics’ is not a return to a comparative-economics-defying-strategy exhibited by the old structuralism). Lin concludes that there is hope for Africa to break into manufacturing as the rise in China’s real wages prices its labour force out of basic manufacturing.

Major new fields for development economics announce their arrival during the series. Kemal Derviş (AL11) confesses that climate change had only forced him to rethink his economic framework a couple of years before his 2008 lecture. He concludes ‘it is a central issue for this century’. He agrees that early action is advisable—also a key message of the influential Stern Report on the economics of climate change published in October 2006.

Basu draws on the philosophical tradition of John Stuart Mill and introduces elements of behavioural economics into his consideration of labour laws. His characteristically agile approach raises unexpected issues and challenges ideas which seem oblivious of labour standards. If child labour is primarily caused by poverty, then raising living standards rather than banning child labour is the best policy approach.

Stiglitz (AL2), in a critique of the Washington Consensus of the Bretton Woods institutions, comments on the dangers of liberalization and deregulation in the financial system. José Antonio Ocampo (AL14) devotes his entire lecture to proposals for reforming the architecture of the international monetary system.

The themes reoccur, but coalesce in new forms

The first lecture by Douglass North (AL1) was on institutions, but then so was that by Pritchett (AL16). North focussed on the new institutional economics as a contribution to understanding the transition problem—understandable in terms of the transition of the Soviet bloc at the time, whereas Pritchett’s contribution looked at the difficulty of achieving state effectiveness in the developing country context.

Inequality (Tony Atkinson AL3, Frances Stewart AL5, Birdsall AL9) has been specifically addressed. Atkinson and Birdsall take approaches which are complementary,  and can be read as a critique of the transatlantic (and especially UK-US-style) acceptance of greater inequality as necessary outcomes of deregulation and liberalization.

Stewart’s presentation was a telling early formulation of her thesis that horizontal inequality (‘the existence of severe inequalities between culturally defined groups’) is a telling determinant which adds to or outweighs the horizontal inequality of individuals or households. In her view, ‘horizontal inequalities affect individual wellbeing and social stability in a serious way, and one that is different from the consequences of vertical inequality’.

UNU-WIDER has had inequality as a long-running theme. It has been taken up in different ways, and other annual lecturers (Stiglitz) have addressed the issue elsewhere.  Furthermore, it is telling that one of this year’s major UNU-WIDER conferences should have been on inequality and that the recent ReCom research on governance and fragility should provide ample evidence of the tendency for states to break apart along the lines of horizontal inequalities described by Stewart. Worse still, they subsequently prove hard to rebuild.

What next for the annual lectures?

UNU-WIDER’s 30th anniversary is approaching. A new set of Sustainable Development Goals (17 with 169 targets—at this stage too many to monitor effectively) is in preparation by the UN for 2015-30. The Institute’s work plan offer two thematic triads—transformation, inclusion and sustainability, and Africa, gender equality, and the future of development assistance. Urbanization, the need for jobs and the challenges of social protection could offer themes for the future; so there is ample scope there for further lectures.

My hopes for the series for 2015-30? Let the big themes come up again in a new form. Equally, expect some surprises, both thematically and in terms of the emergence of new economic methodologies. Keep ahead of the curve, find the emerging issues. Keep thinking big and maintain the quality of presenters.

Roger Williamson is an independent consultant, and Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom. 

WIDERAngle newsletter
October 2014
ISSN 1238-9544

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 IGO License

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