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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 Development Council.

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 civil servant.

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) in Helsinki.

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 competence.

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 research programme.

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 WIDER.

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.

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