Remembering Alice Amsden: an intellectual force

Calestous Juma, guest bloggerAlice Amsden
World renowned development economist Alice Amsden passed away this week.

It is with great sadness that I learned of the passing of Professor Alice Amsden. Alice was a true intellectual force and made remarkable contributions to our understanding of emerging economies.

She was widely recognized as one of the world’s leading visionaries. In 2003 she was awarded the Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought from GDAE at Tufts University. The prize recognizes scholars whose work has helped to broaden economics to better understand urgent contemporary issues. She has made important contributions to our understanding of the role of building productive capabilities as a foundation for innovation.

A few of us who came to work with her closely also knew her as a person of irrepressible character who maintained very high standards. She challenged herself as hard as she challenged others. She pursued her research with remarkable vigor.

I have known Alice for nearly a decade. Over the period she was a member of the faculty of Harvard Kennedy School’s executive program on “Innovation for Economic Development” that I chair.

Alice’s impatience with neo-classical economics is well-known. She was one of the first economists to challenge the belief in free markets. Her works such as Asia’s Next Giant and The Rise of ‘the Rest” have become classics. What is little-known, however, is her dedication to institution-building. We worked together to help several countries build new research institutions from the ground up. One of the greatest successes among our efforts was helping Oman create its National Research Council.

As part of our collaboration Alice invited me to serve with her on several MIT doctoral committees. Alice always wanted to be sure that her students produced the most rigorous work that was worthy of her time. In return, she was highly supportive of her students and prepared them well for the challenges of the academic world.

Alice possessed remarkable curiosity and used every opportunity to challenge and advance her own thinking. I recall that in one of our executive sessions Alice was challenged to explain the differences between Asian and Latin American countries. What started as a hypothetical answer led to a major research effort on the idea of “role models” in economic transformation. Alice developed this idea into a book manuscript.

Her curiosity was matched by her sense humor, which she often rendered with remarkable courage. She had a special way of breaking the ice. On our trip to Oman Alice looked straight at our principal host and asked: “How many wives do you have and why?” The question elicited a very respectful answer and a rich conversation on cultural differences.

Alice did not care much about tradition and was true rebel. I recall once inviting her to give a talk at the Harvard Kennedy School. I also invited someone else to lead the discussion by commenting on her work. Alice started her presentation by challenging the writings of the commentator. The rest of the seminar did not go as planned, obviously.

Alice cared deeply for humanity and had remarkable empathy for the oppressed and disadvantaged. It was really her strong sense of justice that led her to do her doctoral work in post-independence Kenya and Asian countries in her later work.

Alice was more than a colleague and mentor. She was a family friend with whom we would spend part of each summer. Those moments gave us a glimpse into her humanity and a joyful part of her that we will sorely miss.

Alice will be remembered for her genuine and untiring dedication to human improvement. She was a true force for good and has left an indelible mark on our intellectual terrain. She was way ahead of her time and it is only now that the world is catching up with her thinking. It is so sad that she will not be around to see her vision start to come true.

Calestous Juma is Professor of the Practice of International Development at the John F. Kennedy School of Government and Director of the Science, Technology, and Globalization Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University.