Singer, Hans

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Singer, Hans 1910-2006


Hans Wolfgang Singer was born on November 29, 1910, in Elberfeld, Germany, into a Jewish family. When the Nazis rose to power, he fled Germany to study at Cambridge University, where he completed a PhD in economics on a refugee scholarship. After a brief academic career, he joined the United Nations (UN). After his extensive work (1947-1969) with the UN, he joined the newly established Institute for Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex. Until his death on February 26, 2006, he maintained his academic contact with IDS.

Singer was widely acclaimed because of his association with the Prebisch-Singer hypothesis. He got the idea while preparing a UN report in 1949. The report was a follow-up of the League of Nations 1945 report noting that during the sixty years preceding 1938, primary product prices had fallen relative to prices of manufactures. On the basis of the UN report, the Argentine economist in charge of the UN Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA), Raul Prebisch, and Singer raised the issue of declining terms-of-trade of primary products and the primary-producing less developed countries (LDCs) vis-à-vis manufactures and the manufacture-exporting developed countries (DCs). They questioned the dominant classical policy prescription of free trade and international division of labor according to the Ricardian dictum of comparative advantages.

The Prebisch-Singer hypothesis was virtually discarded in mainstream economics in the face of strong statistical objections against it. Nevertheless, Singer continued to believe it to be a fact, although he did not necessarily know how to go about proving it. In 1986 the economist Prabirjit Sarkar provided a strong statistical support in favor of it. This encouraged Singer to collaborate with Sarkar to work further in this field, which led in 1991 to the Sarkar-Singer extension of the hypothesis in the field of manufacture exports of the LDCs to pay for their manufacture imports from the DCs. This extension provided a further support to the Prebisch-Singer hypothesis, particularly its core that is primarily concerned with the relationships between types of countries (unequal relationships between the LDCs and the DCs)not just with the relationships between types of commodities (primary products and manufactures). In the process it has become more relevant to the early twenty-first century world with increasing trade of manufactures between the LDCs and the DCs.

Throughout his life Singer maintained a voluminous flow of professional publications on all aspects of developmentfrom long-term trends in prices to short-term commodity price instability, food security, and welfare of children. He advocated food aid, concessional loans for the development and management of the affairs of debt-ridden LDCs.

Singer was a follower of the original scheme of the English economist John Maynard Keynes regarding the then future world economic system tabled at the Bretton Woods Conference (1944) for its consideration. He shared Keyness concern for commodity price stability for the sake of stability of the world economy. Like Keynes, he believed that surplus and deficit in balance of payments were two sides of the same coin, and so both sides should bear the burden of adjustment in balance of payments disequilibrium. But the system that came up with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank penalizes the deficit countries in spite of their role in increasing effective demand and thereby promoting world output and employment. He identified this as one major cause of the agony of the LDCs. He was critical of the neoliberal one-size-fit-for-all policy prescriptions of the IMF and World Bank for the debt-ridden LDCs. He anticipated much of the writings of the dissident World Bank economist Joseph Stiglitz on the discontents of globalization.

SEE ALSO Prebisch, Raúl; Prebisch-Singer Hypothesis; Terms of Trade


League of Nations. 1945. Industrialization and Foreign Trade. Geneva: Author.

Sarkar, Prabirjit. 1986. The Singer-Prebisch Hypothesis: A Statistical Evaluation. Cambridge Journal of Economics 10: 355-371.

Sarkar, Prabirjit, and Hans Singer. 1991. Manufactured Exports of Developing Countries and Their Terms of Trade since 1965. World Development 19: 333-340.

Sarkar, Prabirjit, and Hans Singer. 1992. Debt Crisis, Commodity Prices, Transfer Burden, and Debt Relief. Discussion Paper no. 2 97. Sussex, U.K.: IDS, University of Sussex.

United Nations. 1949. Relative Prices of Exports and Imports of Under-developed Countries. New York: Author.

Prabirjit Sarkar