Sir William Arthur Lewis
A ground-breaking economist and academic for Global Majority nations.
The historian championing this figureHi! I'm Oli, a historian educated at Manchester and Oxford University who has worked with Windrush community groups and written about the impact of the 2012 Hostile Environment on their experience as citizens.
Arthur Lewis was the first person of African origin to receive a Nobel Prize in a field other than peace. He was a pioneer in the field of development economics, publishing, “The Theory of Economic Growth”, in 1954, which is regarded as a seminal text.
He wrote a further 12 books, contributed to over 80 technical works in developmental economics, and was an influential intellectual in the decolonisation process following the Second World War.
William Arthur Lewis was born in St Lucia in the British West Indies in 1915. Both his parents were school teachers and migrated from Antingua before he was born. When he was seven, Lewis fell ill and required his father to teach him in order to not fall behind in school. He learned so much that he was shifted from grade 4 to grade 6 upon his return, which came as both a blessing and a challenge, describing how it gave him,
“a terrible sense of physical inferiority, as well as an understanding, which has remained with me ever since, that high marks are not everything.”
He finished high school at the age of 14 and worked as a clerk in the civil service for the colonial government. He filled this occupation until he was old enough to sit the examination for the St Lucia government scholarship to a British university. He did so aged 17, in 1932, and won the scholarship.
Lewis attended the London School and Economics and received first-class honours in his Bachelor of Commerce in 1937. His studies covered accounting, business management, commercial law, economics, and statistics. He was awarded another scholarship to do a Ph.D. in Industrial Economics, completing his Ph.D. thesis in 1940.
He became the London School’s first black faculty member, lecturing and teaching there until 1948. Between 1948 and 1957, Lewis was the Professor of Politics at the University of Manchester where he became the first black person to hold a chair in a British university at the age of 35. After his Ph.D. studies, Lewis shifted his attention to the history of world economy in 1944, followed by a parallel interest in development economics in 1950.
In 1954, he published an article, “Economic Development with Unlimited Supplies of Labour”, and introduced what came to be called the Two-Tier Dual Sector model, or the “Lewis Model”. This was a historically based analysis that began with his questioning why for the first fifty years of Britain’s industrial revolution was there no real wage growth. His theory challenged neoclassical economic frameworks at the time, with its impact discussed in more detail below.
Alongside his academic career and its indirect influence on postcolonial economic planning, Lewis played different direct roles in the politics of decolonisation. During the Second World War, Lewis advised the British Colonial Office on how to finance industrial development in the colonies.
Whilst he described his role in the Colonial Office as “largely a waste of time”, he became a member of the Colonial Advisory Economic Council (1951-53). He also consulted for the Committee for National Fuel in Britain, the United Nations Group of Experts, and the Board of Governors of Queen Elizabeth House in Oxford. These roles helped him define his own views on development economics and how he thought the colonies’ self-interest could be served.
In 1957, Ghana gained its independence and Lewis became the UN Economic Adviser to the Ghanain Prime Minister and Deputy Managing Director of the UN Special Fund, helping to shape the country’s first Five Year Development Plan (1959-1963). From 1970 to 1974, he set up the Caribbean Development Bank and served as its first president.
These were aspects of Lewis’ career where he played an active role in the contest over the future of the newly independent parts of the world, grappling with the continued influences and inequalities of colonial rule.
After leaving Ghana in 1959, Lewis became the Head of the Department of Economics at the University of the West Indies. He later became the first West Indian to become Principle and Vice Chancellor.
He served as the Chancellor of the University of Guyana from 1966-1973. In recognition of his service to the Commonwealth, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1963. In 1979, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for economics for his work into problems facing developing countries.
Lewis remained an active scholar until his death, on June 15th, 1991 at the age of seventy-six.
What was the time period like?:
Lewis was influenced in his formative years by the impact of the Great Depression (1929-39) on the West Indies. The dependency of the colonies on the UK in particular meant that when economic activity fell, the demand for exports from the West Indies also suffered. Lewis recorded statistics of this decline in his book, World production, Prices, and Trade, 1870-1960.
Between 1928-33, exports fell between 37% and 71% for Commonwealth Caribbean countries. And again, between 24% and 74% between 1938-40, except in Guyana (16%), St Vincent, and the Grenadines (5%). Colonial nations were both exploited for their cheap resources and labour, and were made vulnerable to causes of the change of economic production in richer colonising nations – such as the Great Depression and World War II.
Before joining the London School of Economics in Britain, Lewis would have experienced the beginning of the labour rebellions of the 1930s in Britain’s Caribbean colonies. Often the largest employers of each island was the primary exporter company, such as the sugar, industry in Antiguia, Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, St Kitts, and Trinidad. Oil, banana, and bauxite production was all prominent in Trinidad, Jamiaca, and Guyana respectively. For Belize, logging and lumber was the largest employer.
The right to vote was limited for the colonies in the 1930s. You needed to possess property or a certain level of income to qualify for the vote, meaning around 10% of the adult population could participate, leaving control in the hands of British appointed Governors. Only Jamaica and Guyana had laws permitting trade unions, but even they were not allowed to strike and picket peacefully around employers premises.
Trinidad had an unoffical union, the Trinidad Workingmens Association, since 1897, which became legal through 1932 legislation similar to Jamaica’s. Grenada and St Lucia also achieved trade union powers, but it remained illegal in the remaining Caribbean colonies.
Although Lewis left St Lucia in 1932 and worked in a relatively privileged and well-paid part of the economy – as a government employee – his early life was informed by a spectacle of stark inequality and injustice, the impoverishment of his fellow countrymen, and resistance from Britain to give freedoms and autonomy to their colonised subjects.
At the time of his arrival in Britain, London was the intellectual centre of anti-colonial struggles and meetings. Due to Britain’s concentration of wealth and power at the imperial centre, the most respected forms of education could be achieved through British universities.
This attracted the ablest members of colonised societies, which Britain would train to run the administration of the colonies. However, as early as 1900, when the first Pan-African Conference was held in London, 23 to 25 July, localised anti-colonial struggles were beginning to become transnational as colonised people from around the British Empire were able to meet and consolidate their efforts.
Lewis reflects on how he became part of this force:
“In London, meeting fellow anti-imperialists from all over the world, I launched upon a systematic study of the British colonial empire and its practices — colour bars, prohibiting Africans from growing coffee in Kenya so that they were forced into the labour market to work for cash to pay their taxes, and all the rest”.
When Lewis had been making his choice of what degree to study, he was faced with his own reality of structural racism in a non-academic sense. There were legal restrictions placed on people of colour within the colonies, restricting them from higher-skilled and higher-paid jobs in British-controlled industries.
This meant law or medicine were popular career choices because an affluent living could be made as an independent practitioner without government support. Lewis wanted to be an engineer, but believed this was “pointless since neither the government nor the white firms would employ a black engineer”. Despite Lewis’ clear abilities and merit, his choices in life were limited by the institutionalised structural racism of the late colonial era.
When he arrived in Britain, he then faced a mixture of this institutionalised form of racism – formal rules about what jobs people of colour could not do – and social racism, which had its own structural impacts. Lewis had a celebrated academic career, but he recalls how he was,
“subjected to all the usual disabilities – refusal of accommodation, denial of jobs for which he had been recommended, generalised discourtesy and the rest”.
For example, in 1937, he failed to achieve a job as an administrator for the Colonial Services in Port of Spain, Trinidad, despite having a first-class degree. However, by 1941, he was undertaking research for the Colonial Office. Whilst there may not have been any formal rules against people of colour taking administrative jobs or renting accommodation, there were no legislative rights to stop people from discriminating against people because of their race, just as there was nothing to stop people from being openly racist in public.
When Lewis was appointed to a temporary assistant lectureship in 1938, the decision was unanimous, yet his teaching was restricted because of informal racist ideas that created structural barriers because those in power held those racist views. LSE Director, Alexander Carr-Saunders explains how he felt he had to restrict Lewis’ role and explain his appointment to the Court of Governors because it went against the agreed norm that people of colour were not permitted into the same elite spaces as white people.
“He would therefore not see students individually but in groups. The Appointments Committee is, as I said, quite unanimous but recognise that the appointment of a coloured man may possibly be open to some criticism. Normally, such appointments do not require the confirmation of the Governors but on this occasion I said that I should before taking any action submit the matter to you.”
This is an intriguing insight into the diversity of opinion about people of colour in the first half of the c.20th. Carr-Saunders clearly wanted to hire Lewis for his ability and yet felt pressured by social attitudes to assure it was supported by the Governors of the university. He was scared about criticism, most likely from other academic institutions, and although there were no formal rules against hiring people of colour, social racism was strong enough to create a structural barrier Lewis had to deal with.
As an academic, Lewis described himself as a “social democrat”, in contrast to the “laissez-faire liberal” theory of his colleague, Professor Sir Arnold Plant, a leading practitioner in Lewis’ field of industrial economics at the LSE. This put his thinking on the Left side of the political-economic field.
Lewis developed as a leading economist, overcoming barriers to entry into the elite academic world, and contributed to the wave of Keynesian economic thinking that dominated the two decades following the end of the Second World War. He theorised ways for formerly colonised nations to create their own economic development through the use of state policies that would help them catch up with the more advanced economies of the colonial powers, such as Britain.
Whilst Lewis faced everyday racism and its manifestation in work and housing, he was a well-educated man, who was able to access scarce opportunities to fund his academic career. As this history shows, he was an exceptionally talented individual and that is not being challenged by pointing out his circumstances.
Furthmore, his experience would have been significantly different from a woman of colour at this time, a person of colour who was LGBT, or a person of colour with a disability. The experience of racism and British colonial rule also varied by colony and by ethnicity. As a historian, is it important to distinguish between what can be said as broad generalisations (all people of colour experienced racism at this time) and the specifics within this understanding (educated, men of colour experienced both a similar and different form of racism to…).
What influence have they had on Modern Day UK?:
Lewis’ work has had a major influence on the study of economics and theories about development that remain important to this day. His theories reflect his interest in understanding how formerly colonised countries could use policies to develop their economies in a way to close the gap between them and the colonisers.
He produced theories on early-stage capital development, the terms of trade, and the concept of economic growth. The “Lewis model” describes how modernization and economic development occur in a country at the early stage of development.
Labour in the non-capitalist subsistance sector of the economy (farming) shifts to the capitalist sector (industry). Because the supply of this labour is unlimited for a time, the capitalist sector can expand without raising wages. This results in higher returns to capital (profit), which is then reinvested, leading to an increase in employment. Assuming profits are reinvested and capital investment does not substitute for skilled labour, the process becomes self-sustaining and leads to economic development.
A “Lewisian turning point” occurs when excess labour is fully absorbed and capital accumulation begins to increase wages. Such a theory remains highly relevant to the development of economies such as China.
His theories on the terms of trade pointed to the need for developing countries to develop the productivity of their agricultural sector, as well as specialise and develop a high-value industry whilst importing food from other countries.
Lewis’ work shows how he was very aware of the deep problems facing newly independent colonial nations. He understood that, because of colonial economic relations, colonised nations and the Caribbean in particular were stuck producing low-value export goods. This limited the value of their economic production and made them vulnerable to global economic crises (Great Depression, Second World War).
Whilst this has been a problem for most parts of the formerly colonised world, countries in East Asia, such as South Korea and Taiwan, were able to create an export industry specialising in high-value goods, such as electronics.
Lewis’ theories were highly influential in encouraging state-led economic development planning, however, this did not succeed in every newly independent country. Success was often dependent on the economic support of larger economic powers, such as the US, and the influence of Cold War politics.
Although there were significant barriers to the success of the ‘Lewisian turn’, such as the terms of trade, partially determined by the value of currencies on the international market, Lewis contributed to a body of thought promoting the economic autonomy and independence of formerly colonised nations. This work continues in the Caribbean with the creationg of the Caribbean Community, the Association of Caribbean States, and the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States.
- More about Sir Arthur – https://caricom.org/personalities/sir-arthur-lewis/
- Biography – http://www.caribbeanelections.com/knowledge/biography/bios/lewis_arthur.asp
- Essay – https://www.un.org/en/chronicle/article/w-arthur-lewis-pioneer-development-economics
- Journal – http://www.socialisthistorysociety.co.uk/?page_id=193