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Albert Hirschman papers at the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library,Princeton University
Michele Alacevich

Albert O. Hirschman is one of the most creative and versatile social scientists of the second half of the Twentieth century. He started his professional career as an economist, but his contributions encompass a much broader field of inquiry.

Albert Hirschman was born to a Jewish family in 1915 in Berlin. In 1933, due to the rise to power of the Nazi party, he fled Germany and went to France. He then studied at the London School of Economics in 1935-36, was in Spain in 1936 after the outbreak of the civil war, and in Trieste, Italy, between 1936 and 1938, where he was in close contact with prominent antifascist circles. As a consequence of the Italian racial laws he fled once again to France, where he became an assistant to Varian Fry, the American citizen who organized a clandestine organization in Paris to help Jews and antifascist intellectuals escape imprisonment and repair to the United States. In 1940, before the Vichy police could reach him, Hirschman moved to the United States.

After the war, Hirschman was an officer for the Marshall Plan and then an economist at the Board of the Federal Reserve in Washington, DC. Between 1952 and 1956 he worked for the World Bank as an economic advisor to the Colombian government and then became a private consultant to Colombian private and public enterprises. The Colombian experience gave Hirschman the opportunity to reflect on the process of economic development of the so-called backward countries, a field of inquiry which was quickly expanding after World War II. Between 1958 and 1968 Hirschman published three books on economic development in less developed countries, and became one of the “pioneers” of the discipline.

My interest in the Hirschman papers is related to the period 1952-1968, when Hirschman played a very important role in shaping the discipline of development economics. More specifically, I am interested in the collaboration between Hirschman and the World Bank in the early 1960s and in the result of that collaboration, Hirschman’s third book in development economics (Development Projects Observed, Brookings Institution, 1968). I had already studied Hirschman’s activities in Colombia for my PhD thesis, and subsequently published a book where I described Hirschman’s experience in Latin America at length (The Political Economy of the World Bank. The Early Years, Stanford University Press, 2009).

Whereas in his 1958 book, The Strategy of Economic Development (Yale University Press), Hirschman discussed development at a very high, general level, in his 1968 book he chose to examine in detail twelve development projects implemented by the World Bank worldwide. From an intensive analysis of a small group of projects, Hirschman intended to unravel the actual mechanisms and processes at the basis of projects – such as, for example, large industrial plants and programs of land irrigations – which were meant to be the foundation of the economic growth of a country.

Hirschman’s collaboration with the Bank was initially very productive, but this relation became increasingly strained over the analysis of the Bank’s development projects. Those contrasts are a symptom of deeper disagreements on priorities for policies, operations evaluation standards, approaches and conceptual frameworks in development economics in the mid-1960s. Hirschman, who had been a pioneer of development economics in the 1950s, was again pioneering a new point of view in the 1960s, by arguing for a complex approach to the analysis of development processes and a strong emphasis on qualitative analysis. Big institutions like the World Bank, on the other hand, tended to simplify the analysis in order to create standardized operational tools. However, even if the relation between Hirschman and the Bank was not smooth, it was indeed fruitful and prolific, as the continuous contacts between Hirschman and Bank’s economists in subsequent years show.

In the World Bank Archives only a few documents of that collaboration remain; they principally focus on the preliminary contacts between the Bank and Hirschman, but also offer a few internal World Bank correspondence when Hirschman circulated an interim report and a draft of the first chapter of his 1968 book.

The Hirschman papers held at the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library on the 1968 book consist principally of three categories of materials: (i) the World Bank documents and reports that Hirschman accumulated as preparatory material; (ii) Hirschman’s travel notes; and (iii) correspondence related to Hirschman’s interim report mentioned above, and a draft of the first chapter of his book. The relevance of this material is uneven. The preparatory material is not particularly interesting: it consists of very specific World Bank documents on various projects, and some summaries prepared by a Bank’s assistant to Hirschman – essentially brief chronologies of events. The travel notes seem more interesting. So far I can tell that it is not easy to decipher them and they are for the most part very sketchy. At times they are simply lists of contact names. Several of them appear to have been taken by Hirschman’s wife, Sarah, who accompanied him in his travels and helped collect information. Some parts appear more articulate and will hopefully offer interesting insights on the evolution of Hirschman’s thought. Finally, the correspondence related to Hirschman’s interim report and the draft of the first chapter of his book is for the most part a duplicate of the documents held in the World Bank Archives.

In sum, these documents do not seem to offer any substantially new information. But they are interesting for at least two – and possibly three – reasons. First, they offer information on the context and the events in which Hirschman developed his research; this information, particularly when merged with other archival sources (as for example, the documents related to Southern Italy’s local development agency, Cassa per il Mezzogiorno, visited by Hirschman as one of the twelve Bank’s financed projects) help have a clearer idea of the issues under discussion in developing areas. Second, they are the most complete source of information about Hirschman, at least with regards to the period in question; every document related to Hirschman in the Bank’s Archives is a duplicate of what is available in the Hirschman papers at Princeton. Third, hopefully the travel notes might offer not only contextual information, but also some insights on how Hirschman’s observations solidified around some specific topics that would become the object of the 1968 book. In this case, they could also contribute to an intellectual biography of Hirschman and invalidate my first impression, namely that not really new information on Hirschman’s development economics seems to emerge.

Some final general comments on the Hirschman’s papers at the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library at Princeton: this is clearly a collection of papers related to the professional sphere of Albert Hirschman’s life, and they appear to have been accurately organized. This is very helpful to researchers. Also, the clarity of the collection seems to reflect Hirschman’s clarity of mind: early drafts of his papers are very similar to the final versions, his lucidity emerges from the materials, and redundancies are very rare. At the same time, and for these very reasons, this collection does not seem to open new perspectives on Hirschman’s work, not to speak about hidden or previously unknown gems. In a word, it is a collection very consistent with what we already know from Hirschman’s published work. Also, it does not offer material about important parts of Hirschman’s personal life, such as the pre-war years across France, Spain, Britain and Italy. Of course, personal vicissitudes must always be treated with due respect and confidentiality, but especially in the case of Hirschman his personal choices, embodied in his vicissitudes, are very important: they are a bright example of liberty and of the connections that exist between passions and reason, personal commitment and intellectual drive and curiosity. It may well be that this material does not exist because those were years of exile. But if it existed, it could offer a portrait of the social scientist as a young man which would be incredibly interesting.


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