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  • Max Wood

W. Arthur Lewis: Pioneer of Development Economics

“The fundamental cure to poverty is not money but knowledge” – Sir W. Arthur Lewis

It's Black History Month and we wanted to celebrate the achievements of some great black economists whose stories you might not have heard. If you look at our social media platforms you can see our first post about Sadie Alexander, a woman who used her knowledge of both law and economics to fight injustice and discrimination towards black people and women in America. Her powerful work helped build the foundations we stand on today to continue the fight against discrimination.

Today we celebrate the achievements of Sir William Arthur Lewis, a St. Lucian economist that focused his work on poverty and underdevelopment. He was LSE’s first black academic, the UK’s first black professor (1938), and remains the only black person to have won the Nobel Prize for Economics (1979).

Lewis initially wanted to become an engineer but said it was “pointless since neither the government nor the white firms could employ a black engineer”. Aged 18, he earned the government scholarship to attend the London School of Economics (LSE), becoming the first black individual to gain acceptance there. He stayed on to complete a PhD in Industrial Economics and became an assistant lecturer in 1939.

However, becoming a professor received racist backlash as his teaching hours were restricted and he was limited to group teaching only and no individual tutorials. He was resilient to this and went on to become a professor at the University of Manchester and Princeton University.

His work focused on poverty and development of third world countries, he created some innovative models and theories on economic growth and poverty alleviation. His ground-breaking contributions to economics saw him knighted in 1963 and in 1979 he became the first and only black person to win the Nobel Prize for Economics: For developing two economic models marking out the causes of poverty among the population of developing countries, as well as the factors determining the slow pace of development.

What he achieved has inspired many young black economists today, and his legacy lives on in many ways. He has colleges named after him in the Caribbean, lecture theatres in Princeton and Manchester Universities as well as his face on the $100 East Caribbean bill.

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