Professor Helen Hughes dies | Pacific Beat

Professor Helen Hughes dies

Professor Helen Hughes dies

Updated 20 June 2013, 16:47 AEST

An Australian economist who staunchly advocated private land ownership and free markets in the Pacific Islands has died.

84 year old Helen Hughes, from the Centre for Independent Studies, passed away in Sydney of complications following surgery.

She was born in Czechoslovakia in 1928, migrating with her family to Melbourne 1939.

Professor Hughes had a long career as an economist specialising in development, with a particular interest in the Pacific and towards the end of her life, Aboriginal communities in Australia.

One of her contemporaries, Professor Ron Duncan from the Australian National University, worked with her for many years at the World Bank.

Presenter: Bruce Hill

Speaker: Professor Ron Duncan from the Australian National University, Professor Helen Hughes

DUNCAN: Her main contribution I think was what culminated in the series of studies, they're called Pacific 2020. These studies were done in the early 90s and posed the questions about would the rapidly growing populations in a lot of these countries, the deteriorating health situation, the rapid urbanisation going on, the fact that agriculture wasn't progressing very fast, what was the future and it came out as quite a pessimistic view about the Pacific, but it certainly triggered a lot of action later on after she'd left the Australian National University. She wrote more about the failure of aid in the Pacific and again that stirred up quite a debate.
HILL: She always quite a contrary view to a large number of academics who talked a lot about the role of government in the Pacific and communal land ownership. She was all for a much smaller government and more private enterprise and also private landownership, which really put her at odds with a lot of people?
DUNCAN: That doesn't sit well with the views of many academics unfortunately, but I agree with her position. I just don't see how without some form of individual title to land. It doesn't have to be freehold, it can be long term lease in my view, that you're not going to get the development of individual entrepreneurship. And my belief is that people in the Pacific, given the same set of institutions as us, say here in Australia, will react in exactly the same way, be as entrepreneurial and innovative as everybody else is.  In a lot of the Pacific countries, they just don't get that chance.
HILL: Professor Helen Hughes was never shy about expressing her views. When Executive Director of the Vanuatu based Pacific Institute of Public Policy, Derek Brien, suggested last year that Australia should re-examine its relations with Melanesian countries and take their needs more seriously, Professor Hughes was typically unsparing in her response.
HUGHES: Well, I'm flabbergasted, I'm absolutely flabbergasted. Here is a Westerner, speaking on the behalf of Pacific Islands, and ignoring the fact that the Melanesian Spearhead Group of which Vanuatu is a member from being really promising countries a few years ago, are now joining sub-Saharan African countries as the worst governed, poorest developing countries in the world and we're being told to take them very seriously. I mean most of the people living in those Melanesian Spearhead countries are living  a subsistence life, they are poorer than they were 30 years ago at independence. This is very true of Vanuatu, where you have a very wealthy elite living in Vila, enjoying all the good things of life, and you've got women giving birth in the bush a few k's inland. I mean I'm just astonished. Australia is supposed to say no, no. These are very serious countries. I mean some of them are a few 100,000 people. These are countries we should take seriously and engage with them as if they were Malaysia or Singapore or countries like that. These are island states that have absolutely done nothing for their people. They have ripped off whatever aid or tourism or minerals have been developed for a very small elite and this elite are now telling us we should take them very seriously.
HILL: Professor Ron Duncan says that the uncompromising exterior Helen Hughes showed when talking about economics and development issues masked a warm and caring person.
DUNCAN: That was very much her persona. My memory of Helen and I've known her since 1979. She hired me to go to the World Bank, where I just went originally for two years, but end up staying 14 and I worked in her department. And in public meetings, even in the World Bank, she was a very aggressive person. In fact I remember her telling me that seeing that I'd come out of the ANU and the Productivity Commission, which are fairly, fairly aggressive environments in terms of questioning peoples' arguments. She said just be careful. Don't be too aggressive here. There's lots of different cultures. 
Well, the first meeting that I went to with Helen. At that time, she was the most senior woman in the World Bank and there we were in a group of senior directors of departments in the World Bank and she roundly abused all of them for being idiots and in no uncertain terms and I thought, well she wasn't conforming to what she told me how to behave.  But in private, Helen was just the kindest most gentle, most helpful person that you could imagine. What she did here at the ANU in helping overseas students get through post-graduate studies was, was just wonderful.



Bruce Hill

Bruce Hill


Bruce is one of the Pacific’s most experienced journalists with nearly 20 years covering the region and has won several international awards.

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