Ragnar Nurkse (1907-1959) belongs to the handful of economic thinkers associated with early or high development theory, also referred to as classical development economics or pioneers of development. This group is typically seen to consist of the following key thinkers: Paul Rosenstein-Rodan, Hans Singer, Arthur Lewis, Albert Hirschman, Gunnar Myrdal and Ragnar Nurkse.
Ragnar Nurkse was born on 5 October 1907 in the small village of Käru in Raplamaa county about 100 km south of Tallinn, Estonia. Along with his family, who emigrated to Canada in 1928, Nurkse left Estonia and in 1929 started to study economics at the University of Edinburgh from where he graduated in 1932 with a first-class degree.
After Edinburgh, Nurkse continued his studies in Vienna from 1932 to 1934, where he studied with Ludwig von Mises, Gottfried von Haberler and Oskar Morgenstern. In Vienna, Nurkse published his first article “Ursachen und Wirkungen der Kapitalbewegungen” (Causes and Effects of Capital Movements) and his first monograph on the same subject Internationale Kapitalbewegungen (International Capital Movements). It is also in Vienna where Nurkse’s close friendship with Haberler started and continued until Nurkse’s death.
While still in Vienna, Nurkse successfully applied for a job in the Secretariat of the League of Nations in Geneva, where he worked from 1 May 1934. Nurkse worked in The Financial Section and Economic Intelligence Service of the League of Nations and contributed regularly to publications of the League like Monetary Review, The Review of World Trade and World Economic Survey. The unit was transferred to Princeton in 1940, and Nurkse also moved to the United States. Previously, in 1938, he had enrolled as a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. However, he never finished his PhD studies. Instead, he worked in Princeton during the war on what became International Currency Experience: Lessons of the Inter-War Period, published under the auspices of the League of Nations but credited mostly to Nurkse. This book went on to become one of the key publications for the Bretton Woods system.
Following a brief stint as a visiting lecturer in Economics at Columbia University (from September 1945 to May 1946), Nurkse was a Member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton from 1946 to 1948. While he was offered a high position in the International Monetary Fund, he accepted a professorship at Columbia University instead. In 1947, Nurkse was appointed Associate Professor of International Economics and moved from Princeton to New York. In 1949, he was promoted to full Professor at Columbia University. It was in this period that Nurkse’s focus shifted from international monetary issues to development economics. This research found its first expression in Capital Formation in Underdeveloped Countries, published in 1953 and based on his lectures held in Rio de Janeiro (1951) and Cairo (1952). It was also during these years that Nurkse was actively discussing development issues with other key classics such as Rosenstein-Rodan, Prebish and others.
In 1958-59, Nurkse was awarded a Ford Foundation Research Scholarship which he used mostly for working at the United Nations library in Geneva; he also gave lectures in Paris and Rome. During that time Nurkse accepted a call to Princeton University. It was Jacob Viner who called Nurkse to Princeton faculty and Nurkse accepted the call, but never started to work in Princeton. However, this is the reason why his archive is in Princeton.
In April 1959, he was invited to Stockholm to deliver the Wicksell Memorial Lectures on international trade. These lectures were published posthumously as, after returning to Geneva from Stockholm, Nurkse suddenly collapsed and died of a heart attack during a walk on the slopes of Mont Pèlerin above Lake Geneva on 6 May. Ragnar Nurkse is buried in Vevey in St. Martin cemetery.
Triple-tower on Lõõtsa 8a is named after Ragnar Nurkse.