The writer is emeritus professor of international studies at Simon Fraser University
Michael Lipton, who has died aged 86, was an economist who dedicated his career to understanding and solving the problem of poverty in low-income countries. For him, this very often meant the development of small-scale, peasant farming.
Lipton was committed to rigorous empirical investigation, and was unusual among economists of his generation in having undertaken field research in a village in western India for eight months. His great contribution to his discipline was recognised in 2012, when he was awarded the Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought.
Early on in his career, Lipton focused on redistributive land reform. He laid out the case for it in a significant International Labour Organization report on the development of Sri Lanka in 1971, and in his last major book, Land Reform in Developing Countries: Property Rights and Property Wrongs, which was published in 2009. Lipton explained how the agriculture sector generally, small producers especially, and in consequence development as a whole, were harmed by what he described as “urban bias”. He held that this was, as the title of his 1977 book stated, Why Poor People Stay Poor.
Though he was sometimes castigated as a populist for these arguments, Lipton was no dewy-eyed romantic harking back to the agrarian past. He was deeply engaged with the sciences and, later in his career, staunchly defended the positive potential of genetically engineered plant material.
Lipton was born in London in 1937, to German Jewish parents who had left Hamburg four years prior. He went to Haberdashers’ Aske’s School, and then, after completing his National Service, to Balliol College, Oxford. He read philosophy, politics and economics, winning the university prize for economics, and taking a fellowship at All Souls College.
Lipton was drawn to development economics when he began working with Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, on his pioneering institutional study of development issues in South Asia, published in 1968 and titled Asian Drama: An Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations. From that point on, India was central to Lipton’s research, though he also worked in other countries in Asia. He spent time in Africa too, particularly in Botswana, where he was an adviser to the government between 1977 and 1979, and in South Africa.
In his work with Myrdal, Lipton found existing micro-level research inadequate for understanding the problems of agricultural development, and it was in addressing this limitation that he began his field work in India. In 1968, his findings gave rise both to the seminal article, “The Theory of the Optimising Peasant”, and to an important critique of India’s agricultural development policy in the book he edited with Paul Streeten, The Crisis of Indian Planning.
At the time, academic research on agricultural development was influenced by the work of the (later Nobel prize-winning) economist Theodore Schultz, who argued that peasant farmers are “efficient but poor”. By this, Schultz meant that farmers aim to maximise profit and do so by allocating their resources efficiently — but those resources are severely limited. He argued that growth therefore required changing the conditions of production through new technology and inputs, such as chemical fertilisers.
But Lipton showed that, given the risk and uncertainty farmers confront, it would be irrational for them to aim to maximise. Instead, they tried to optimise, by insuring themselves against the risks of failure. He suggested that policymakers should therefore try to reduce the riskiness of agriculture. Dedicating resources to irrigation, for instance, rather than to the provision of fertilisers to farmers operating in favoured areas, would enable broader-based, more egalitarian agricultural development. In the light of the experience of India’s “green revolution”, it is unfortunate that this advice wasn’t heeded.
In the mid-1960s, Lipton also published a book on British economic performance, and a book of chess problems. Chess, as well as poetry and classical music, remained a passion for him.
Later on, Lipton devoted much of his research, some of it undertaken as an adviser to the World Bank, to understanding the causes and conditions of poverty. He brought this research and his work on agriculture together in his 1989 book, New Seeds and Poor People, perhaps the definitive study of the “green revolution”. He subsequently pursued his analysis in the context of the agricultural innovations brought by genetic engineering.
Lipton’s writing is characterised by its rigour, and though his working through of alternative hypotheses can be demanding for the reader, his positions are always stated with great clarity. In discussion, he relished vigorous debate and enjoyed engaging with those who disagreed with him.
Much of Lipton’s work was carried out from the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex where he was appointed as a professorial fellow in 1967, and remained a leading figure for almost thirty years. In 1994, he established the Poverty Research Unit at Sussex. He was a kind colleague, and generous with the time he gave to young researchers.
Michael Lipton’s wife of 56 years, Merle Lipton, a distinguished historian and political analyst, passed away just three months before him. He is survived by his son Emanuel, and his grandson, Joshua.