Lal Jayawardena: crafting development policy
CIVIL SERVANT: Lal Jayawardena, who died in Colombo in April
2004, was an intellectual, a lover of life and a humane and gifted
leader. He was a top Sri Lankan civil servant of the post-independence
era and an influential policy maker.
Lal was educated in Sri Lanka and at King's College, Cambridge, where
he graduated with a double first in the Economics Tripos. He later did
research for the PhD degree, also in Cambridge.
He not only excelled academically, but was by all accounts a popular
figure among his contemporaries, who included Amartya Sen, Richard
Layard, Tam Dalyell, Mahbub ul Haque, Jagdish Bhagwati, Manmohan Singh
and Geoff Harcourt.
He was an 'apostle' (a member of the famous, select club of
undergraduates and dons). He is well remembered by his teachers,
particularly Robin Marris and Ken Berrill.
He also remained close to one of his Cambridge mentors, the late
Nicholas Kaldor, with whom he shared an abiding interest in economic
policy making. Lal's contributions were recognized by his college which
bestowed on him an Honorary Fellowship.
He was his country's ambassador to the European Community and to
Belgium and the Netherlands between the late 1970s and the early 1980s,
and High Commissioner to the UK 1999-2000.
During the 1990s he was the principal economic advisor to the
President of Sri Lanka and deputized for her as Chair of the National
Indeed, at one time or another, Dr Jayawardena held almost all the
top economic posts in Sri Lanka, having become Treasury Secretary at the
very young age of forty one. He also had spells as an international
In this and related capacities he was a serious contributor to the
concept of the Third World and he helped create collective organizations
to realize the poor countries' demands for a more just international
economic order, such as the Group of 77 at the United Nations and the
Group of Twenty-Four at the IMF, where he served for many years as
either Deputy Chairman or Chairman.
Lal Jayawardena was typical of his generation of senior civil
servants in many (alas, not all) developing countries: they normally
came from the upper crust of their nations but were deeply committed to
equity; they were thoroughly professional, proud of their countries but
very conscious of the backwardness of their economies.
Their forebears may have learnt the art of sound civil service from
their colonial masters, but Lal and his peers from other developing
countries were critical of colonialism.
They had the self-confidence to believe that they could carry out the
tasks of reducing poverty and promoting economic development much better
than the colonial governments had done.
Over the last forty years, these diplomats and policy makers have
been deeply involved in fighting for a global regime which would provide
space for developing countries in the world economy.
As a young economist at UNCTAD, Lal was an early and extremely active
member of Sydney Dell's study group on the international financial
system, which for the first time paid attention to the views and
interests of developing countries, as well as the socialist countries of
Eastern Europe and Asia.
Lal and his colleagues wrote papers which undertook rigorous analyses
of international economic issues from a Third World perspective.
At the Memorial meeting for Lal in New Delhi in April 2005, Dr
Manmohan Singh, the Indian Prime Minister, who was Lal's contemporary at
UNCTAD, recalled with pleasure the important work of this group in
relation to the establishment of Special Drawing Rights at the IMF.
Dr Singh also referred to the setting up of the aid target for
advanced countries at 0.7 per cent of GDP. Why 0.7 per cent?
The answer, which is buried in the deliberations of this group, is
that 0.7 per cent was regarded as being a target for public aid and 0.3
per cent represented private investment (which was the then current
level of such investments), giving a total of 1 per cent.
Later, this experience led Lal to become an 'eminent advisor' to the
Brandt Commission and a member of his country's delegation to periodic
conferences of UNCTAD.
Although the credit for creating the entity of the Third World
usually goes to the political leaders of the time - Nehru, Nasser,
Sukarno, Tito and others - its real architects were dedicated
professionals like Lal Jayawardena, Dr Manmohan Singh, Dr Mahbub ul
Haque of Pakistan, the legendary Raul Prebisch from Argentina, Dr Ken
Dadzie from Ghana, Gamani Corea, also from Sri Lanka, as well as many
others from around the developing world.
In the 1980s, Lal was appointed as the first Director of the UN
University's World Institute for Development Economic Research (UNU/WIDER)
He was outstandingly successful as Director, helping to build within
a few years a world-renowned policy think tank focused on the
development of poor countries.
Under Lal's sometimes unorthodox leadership, WIDER gained rapidly in
reputation and compared favourably with scholarly institutions in both
international organizations and the academic world. He did this with his
unique mixture of intuition, dedication, flair and professional
These qualities brought him into conflict with some of his Finnish
hosts in certain quarters but to this observer, it was rather a clash of
management styles than anything more. Lal's culture of Asian management
which sought to be judged.
To be judged on its results rather than the process, versus the
Nordic stress on the primary of the process.
Under Lal, WIDER represented serious, independent and high quality
research. It attracted well-known scholars, including several existing
and prospective Nobel Prize winners, as well as top policy makers from
both rich and poor countries.
During Lal's tenure as Director, UNU/WIDER he published thirty-two
books in the series WIDER Studies in Development Economics, with another
twenty-four in the pipeline.
All of these books have the cast iron seal of high standards as they
have been published by Clarendon Press at Oxford University Press (OUP).
Lal was very much a hands-on Director in terms of organizing the
research agenda and he was a fully engaged academic participant in the
As an economist, Lal continued to work in the international Keynesian
tradition and a part of WIDER's research programme was concerned with
the renewal and revitalization of this school of thought so as to be of
greater relevance to the policy needs of developing countries.
This is evident from Lal's own publications, as well as from the
invariably thoughtful prefaces he wrote to the many books coming out of
His own research, as would be expected, was very much concerned with
policy issues and specifically the problems of imbalances and
asymmetries (both monetary and real) in the international economy.
His policy proposals for using the Japanese surpluses in the 1980s
for resolving the Third World debt problem and for advancing economic
development (see, for example, the WIDER Study Group Series No.1 of
which Lal was the co-author) were widely acclaimed in developing country
policy circles, but of course did not win him many friends in the newly
converted neo-liberal citadels of the Bretton-Woods institutions.
His WIDER Research for Action Series contribution on financing
sustainable development provided the basis for the proposal presented by
the United Nations Secretariat to the Rio Earth Summit.
The writer is Professor of Economics at Cambridge University and
Senior Fellow at Queens' College, Cambridge.