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Remembering Sir Arthur Lewis

Published: 
Sunday, January 21, 2018

On Tuesday January 23 instant, The University of the West Indies will honour the memory of its first vice chancellor, Sir Arthur Lewis, who also won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1979.

At the St Augustine campus, there will be a memorial symposium from 9.30 am to 3 pm, which will be followed by a Distinguished Lecture at 7 pm, to be delivered by Prof Stuart Corbridge, vice chancellor of Durham University in the United Kingdom.

Sir William Arthur Lewis (January 23, 1915—June 15, 1991) was a native of St Lucia who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1979 when he was serving as James Madison Prof of Political Economy at Princeton University.

He graduated from the London School of Economics and Political Science in 1937 with a Bachelor of Commerce degree (First Class) and later with a PhD in Industrial Economics in 1940. He also taught there and later resigned his position as a Reader in Colonial Economics to take up a chair in Economics at the University of Manchester in 1948 where he held the Stanley Jevons Chair in Political Economy.

In 1950, he published “Industrial Development of the British West Indies” in Caribbean Economic Review Vol 2, pp 1-61. In it, he wrote inter alia:

“Laissez-faire economic philosophy of British West Indian governments has been the principal obstacle to the industrialisation of the islands.” (p 34).

He went further to say in the same article:

“The islands cannot be industrialised to anything like the extent that is necessary without a considerable inflow of foreign capital and capitalists, and a period of wooing and fawning upon such people. Foreign capital is needed because industrialisation is a frightfully expensive business quite beyond the resources of the islands.” (p 38).

In 1955 he published a book titled The Theory of Economic Growth (London: George Allen & Unwin). In 1957 he became United Nations economic adviser to Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana’s first year of independence. He later served the United Nations as deputy managing director of its special fund before becoming the first West Indian principal of the University College of the West Indies (UCWI) in 1959 which had been established by Royal Charter in 1948. In 1962 he became the first vice chancellor of the University of the West Indies which succeeded the UCWI.

In 1963, he became Prof of Economics and International Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and later became James Madison Prof of Political Economy.

Another of his famous works, Politics in West Africa, published in 1965, offered a unique insight into the emergence of new states in West Africa that had recently become independent. He did not confine himself to English-speaking countries, but also probed those that had emerged from colonial rule under other imperial powers.

In relation to the political problems being faced by new states that were emerging in the post-colonial era after gaining their independence in the 1950s and early 1960s, Lewis had this to say:

“Plurality is the principal political problem of most of the new states created in the 20th century. Most of them include people who differ from each other in language or tribe, or religion or race; some of these groups live side by side in a long tradition of mutual hostility, restrained in the past only by a neutral imperial power.” (Politics in West Africa, p 66).

From 1970 to 1973, Lewis served as the first president of the Caribbean Development Bank and returned to Princeton after that as James Madison Prof of Political Economy where he remained until his retirement in 1983.

The UWI tribute to Lewis on Tuesday will be a most fitting memorial to a man whose work is still as relevant today as it was before he won the Nobel Prize for Economics.

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