Development economist Alice Amsden dies at 68

MIT professor was a prolific scholar who wrote extensively about industrialization in emerging economies.

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Alice H. Amsden, an expert in economic development who served as the Barton L. Weller Professor of Political Economy in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, died suddenly on March 14 at her home in Cambridge. She was 68.

A prolific scholar, Amsden wrote extensively about the process of industrialization in emerging economies, particularly in Asia. Her work frequently emphasized the importance of the state as a creator of economic growth, and challenged the idea that globalization had produced generally uniform conditions in which emerging economies could find a one-size-fits-all path to prosperity.

“She will be sorely missed,” said Amy K. Glasmeier, professor of geography and regional planning and head of MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning. “Upon hearing the news, one student said to me, ‘she was a titan’ in the field of development. While others took the conventional way, Alice took another path. She was fearless. By any measure, Alice was one of the most, if not the most, accomplished heterodox economist in the world.”

Amsden wrote or co-authored seven books, and dozens of journal articles, essays and chapters in edited volumes. She also wrote frequently for general-interest publications; her work appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, Dissent, Boston Review, Technology Review and others.

One of Amsden’s best-known books was “The Rise of ‘The Rest’: Challenges to the West from Late-Industrializing Economies,” published by Oxford University Press in 2001. In it, she examined the way Asian countries such as South Korea and Taiwan had helped produce growth through state-promoted industrialization. By contrast, Amsden observed, some Latin American countries had accommodated a greater degree of overseas investment, leaving more economic decisions in the hands of multinational firms, not state actors. 

Amsden was a co-winner of the 2002 Leontief Prize, along with Harvard University’s Dani Rodrik, an annual award granted by Tufts University in recognition of important “contributions to economic theory that … support just and sustainable societies.” The prize is named for the prominent late economist Wassily Leontief.

In her acceptance remarks for the Leontief Prize, Amsden stressed the importance of the close study of developing countries, because “there are a lot of people out there that are disappointed and that desperately want improved living conditions and social standards.”

Amsden was born in New York City, received her undergraduate degree from Cornell University in 1965, and her PhD from the London School of Economics in 1971. She began her career as an economist at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and before joining MIT in 1994, taught at the University of California at Los Angeles, Barnard College, Harvard Business School, and The New School. At MIT, she held the Ellen Swallow Richards Institute Chair from 1994 until 1999, when she was named the Weller Professor. 

Beyond her teaching and scholarship, Amsden served as a consultant to the OECD, the World Bank, and multiple programs within the United Nations. In 2009, she was appointed by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to a three-year seat on the U.N. Committee on Development Policy, part of the U.N. Economic and Social Council; the committee provides advice to the council on a wide range of economic development issues.

Amsden is survived by her sister and brother-in-law, Myra Strober and Jay Jackman of Stanford, Calif.; nephew Jason Strober, his wife, Joanna Strober, and their children, Sarah, Jared and Ari, of Los Altos Hills, Calif.; niece Elizabeth Strober, her husband, Bryan Cohen, and their son, Leo Strober Cohen, of Seattle; nephew Rashi Jackman, his wife Maike Ahrends, and their son, Jasper Ahrends, of Palo Alto, Calif.; nephew Jason Scott and his wife, Lena Chu, of Mountain View, Calif.; and niece Tenaya Jackman of Oakland, Calif. Amsden was previously married to John Amsden and to Takhashi Hikino.

The Department of Urban Studies and Planning will be hosting a commemorative symposium and memorial for Amsden on Oct. 19-20 in the new Media Lab building. More details will be available in the fall.

Topics: DUSP, Urban studies and planning, Economics, Faculty, Memorial services, Obituaries


Greetings. I have known Alice since the early 1990s. Her book "Asia's Next Giant" inspired me deeply. We kept in touch over the years beginning with her help in meeting top executives of POSCO, the giant Korean steel maker. We met again at a lecture she delivered at the Univ of Washington where I taught for 18 years. Two years ago, I invited her to give a talk at my Centre in Copenhagen, exchanged several papers on economic nationalism, and few months ago I met one of her students who was relocating here. She also enthusiastically endorsed my forthcoming edited volume "Globalization and Economic Nationalism in Asia" (OUP). Her passing away was a complete surprise since I was hoping to see her at MIT this June when I will be attending a conference. She leaves a strong intellectual legacy whose imprint is unlikely to be erased for the foreseeable future.

Anthony D'Costa

Professor, Indian Studies and Research Director

Asia Research Centre

Copenhagen Business School

Copenhagen, Denmark

This news is a rude shock to me. I grew so close to her through email exchanges and her work that I feel I have lost a friend. She contacted me in September, 2010 with an inquiry about my work on the Nigerian oil and gas industry (2007). She was writing about how developing countries learn from one another, and she sought more details about Nigeria’s experience with this. We then had a great conversation that touched upon myriad themes. Her insights and queries forced me to grapple with problems I had never imagined. I looked forward to reading Alice’s work on developing nations learning from one another.

Alice was very clear-sighted totally liberated from the desire for approval. She was a great resource person; I would have emailed her in the next few weeks to converse about a book chapter I plan to start serious work on later this summer. The world has lost one of its most dynamic voices. Thank you, Alice.

G. Ugo Nwokeji

Assoc. Professor of African American Studies

UC Berkeley

I write with sadness having just learned of Dr. Amsden's passing. Years ago, I had the tremendous honor of taking three economics classes, one econ seminar, and a special study from Dr. Amsden back at UCLA (in 1973 and 1974). One was "The Economics of Underdeveloped Nation." Her enthusiasm was contagious. For the seminar, I recall going to Alice's 4 x 6 office seeking help with a topic. She leaned over and handed me a book, "Time on the Cross" by Fogel and Engerman, and said, "Read seems interesting." This moment made me smile twenty years later when Dr. Fogel won a a Nobel Prize. I have thought of Dr. Amsden often since those early days and I know I am a direct beneficiary of her dedication to teaching. I will miss her.

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