Ian Little, who has died at 93, was one of Britain’s foremost economists and, for a time, the world’s most influential development economist. His writings undermined the orthodox post-war view that protectionism and statist planning were the road to prosperity for the developing world.
He was one of the leading intellectual progenitors of the shift towards liberal trade policies in many such nations, which lifted millions out of poverty in the last quarter of the 20th century. Of Little’s contributions the most important was to reconstruct accepted doctrines about development strategy. His work on India in the 1950s had supported central planning. But in 1965 he visited again and had the cardinal insight that economic progress in India and elsewhere had gone off the rails as a result of neglecting the efficient use of foreign trade. This idea was to provide the focus of his work for the next 10 years, during which he wrote two influential books. – both with others but he was the driving force. The first, Industry and Trade in Some Developing Countries (1970), was co-authored with Maurice Scott and Tibor Scitovsky. It advocated radical trade liberalisation, but not laisser-faire; it was in favour of using taxes and subsidies to offset domestic market failures. Using empirical evidence as well as theory, it argued that trade protection, and inward-looking policies more generally, reduced employment and growth. It showed that east Asia was beginning to break out of stagnation on the back of export-oriented policies.
The book had a huge impact on development thinking and policy and its message has stood the test of time. There is now a wide consensus that an open trade policy is a necessary, though not a sufficient, condition of economic transformation.
Little’s other outstanding book on development economics, Project Selection and Planning in Developing Countries (1974), was written in collaboration with James Mirrlees, later a Nobel winner. It had a big influence on project selection in the World Bank and elsewhere.
Ian Malcolm David Little was born in 1918 and educated at Eton and New College, Oxford. Called up in 1939, a few days after war was declared, he served in the RAF as a test pilot and was awarded the Air Force Cross for his skill and courage. The war changed him. He returned to Oxfordwith a sense of purpose and got a first in PPE, followed by a fellowship by examination at All Souls. His doctoral thesis, published in 1950 as A Critique of Welfare Economics, showed the centrality of ethical judgments about the distribution of income in making comparisons of economic welfare. The book established his international reputation as an economic theorist of the first rank.
In 1952 he was elected to an official fellowship at Nuffield College, which remained his main base. But he had several spells away, as an economist in the UK Treasury, as an informal adviser to the Indian Planning Commission, as vice-president of the OECD Development Centre in Paris and as special adviser to the World Bank. He became professor of development economics at Oxford in 1970.
Little married twice. His first wife, Doreen Hennessy, died in 1984. He is survived by his second wife, Lydia Segrave, and two children by the first marriage.In retirement from 1976 his intellectual vigour was undiminished and he wrote, singly or jointly, five significant works. He was made a CBE in 1997. Little inspired many.
His teaching style was not flashy but his forte was the throwaway perceptive remark, the incisive comment that went to the heart of the matter. It gave him great pleasure that one of his doctoral students, Manmohan Singh, became India’s prime minister.
The author is an eminent economist. This article previously appeared in The Financial Times