Helen Hughes, Australia’s greatest female economist: 1928-2013

Earlier this evening the Twitter followers of Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) Executive Director, Greg Lindsay, were sadly informed of the passing of economist Helen Hughes. Mr Lindsay indicated that Hughes passed away due to “complications following surgery.”

Born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1928 and migrating to Melbourne with family in 1939, Hughes attained Honours and Masters degrees at the University of Melbourne. After a stint at the London School of Economics to undertake a PhD, she returned to Australia with various lecturing positions at the University of Melbourne, University of NSW, the University of Queensland, and from 1963 the Australian National University.

Hughes remained at the ANU (including at the Research School of Pacific Studies) from 1963 to 1968, and then spent the next 15 years at the World Bank. Returning to Australia in 1983, she successively took up senior positions at the ANU, University of Melbourne, and as a Senior Fellow at the CIS until her untimely passing.

Helen Hughes’ research interests were deep and varied, including economic development and aid, international trade and investment, employment, the Australian economy, and indigenous economic issues. She had written, edited or co-authored at least 18 books on these, and other, matters. Hughes also presented the ABC Boyer lectures in 1985, on ‘Australia in a Developing World.’

Hughes deservedly received many accolades during her lengthy career. She was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1985 for ‘service to international relations, particularly in the field of economics.’ In 2001, she received the Centenary Medal for her work in poverty alleviation and economic development. Hughes also received the Economic Society of Australia’s Distinguished Fellow Award in 2004.

Helen Hughes fearlessly adopted a free-market approach to the resolution of real-world problems, pointing out that the most appropriate path for growth in the developing world rested on exploiting economic opportunities, through embracing open trade and investment, supported by stable, pro-growth institutional settings minimising the scope of political expropriation.

In her later years, Hughes trained her intellectual attention towards Australia’s own ‘development problem,’ i.e., the need to improve the long term economic status of rural and remote indigenous communities. Genuine human capital investment through sound school education, which would enable indigenous children to tap into the skills and knowledge bases that other children, especially in metropolitan areas, take for granted, was seen as a key to ensure that indigenous children do not fall behind educationally.

Her interest in reform, and passion for indigenous youth, was very much evident in her many contributions on indigenous schooling during her time at the CIS. If the political classes were to follow the Hughes model of schooling reform, including competitive experiments in educational services provision, then a legacy of sustained improvement in this area of indigenous education is truly well within Australia’s grasp.

I had the benefit of meeting Helen Hughes on one or two occasions, and would like to publicly express my thanks for her very helpful comments provided in the context of an Issues Paper I developed for the CIS on a proposal for charter schools for indigenous populations. Helen also very kindly sent me a range of her own materials in this area, subsequent to my contribution. For this I was very grateful.

Whilst Helen Hughes’ passing is unquestionably a significant loss to the Australian economics profession and broader academic community, I trust you will join me in paying tribute to Helen Hughes, Australia’s greatest female economist.

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25 Responses to Helen Hughes, Australia’s greatest female economist: 1928-2013

  1. Samuel J

    Helen Hughes was remarkable and will be sorely missed. She was a voice of reason and thoughtfulness.

  2. Blogstrop

    While I can’t claim to be familiar with her economic teaching, I recall seeing her on a panel program where she spoke very sensibly, and with more direct experience than the rest of them, about the problems facing indigenous people and the ways to solve them. There are too few truth tellers in that arena, and those who are there get invited back on TV less often.

  3. johno

    This is a great loss. She was a Great Lady. One of the best.

  4. Tel

    To be honest re own ignorance, I had never heard of her before today. I did a quick scan of her bio and things like World Bank and Bill Hayden and United Nations jumped out at me, so my first thought was, “She’s a bloody central planner.”

    If you read the following transcript, you can see where she argues against Milton Friedman:

    http://www.freetochoosemedia.org/freetochoose/detail_ftc1980_transcript.php?page=2

    Helen Hughes is supporting protectionism, government interference and even comes up with a comment sounding suspiciously like Keynes, “In the long run we are all dead.”

    That said, in her later years she wrote a bunch of stuff for the CIS that was the complete opposite. She really moved across to the Libertarian side as she got older. I would say it is a safe presumption that the World Bank offers better pay than the CIS. Was it a gradual drift? Or did she wake up one morning at the United Nations and realize, “This is all crap! These guys are career moochers, I need to get out of here.”

    I’m guessing some people around here actually knew her, and talked about this…

  5. lem

    OT chipmonk is Sky in her watermelon outfit. Says there are many women in Australia who are more conservative than the men in the Greens. Yep.

  6. Helen Hughes was sharp, humane and witty. As much as ideas ever mattered inside the aid/trade/foreign policy bureaucracy of the 1980s, hers did. How lucky we were to have two fine, contrasting, representatives of the Austrian/Czech school of economic irony (Kasper and Hughes).

  7. Rodney

    Helen Hughs certainly came from the left, but the emphasis should be on “came from”. I cannot now remember whether in conversation she described she described herself as a ex-communist or an ex-marxist. It hardly matters which.
    Hers was a great contribution to the sad field of economics, and the even sadder field of violence and misery in remote aboriginal communities.

    She was a good egg.

  8. Tom Valentine

    Very sad news.She did good.

  9. Tom Valentine

    Very sad news.She did good.

  10. stackja

    Tel #889051, posted on June 16, 2013 at 8:12 am
    To be honest re own ignorance, I had never heard of her before today.

    I too had never heard of her before today.

    She was a good egg.

    A good tribute.

  11. Her work on Aboriginal health and education has been consistent and outstanding. I’m hugely grateful to her for this, if for nothing else – she has left behind a solid body of EVIDENCE upon which policy decisions could be made by a braver government than the one we have. May she rest in peace.

  12. Chai

    Ah, sad news of her passing. She was a brilliant mind, and she will be missed.

    In the time that I worked at CIS, I much enjoyed talking with her.

    – Chai

  13. Bozo

    Around 20-25 years ago, I had the pleasure of attending a couple of barbecues at her home in Canberra. I was invited by friends from the South Pacific studying on development aid scholarships. Helen was one of their teachers at ANU. I was a young and a bit of a red ragger at the time, but I recall clearly that she was very much at ease everyone and well respected by her students.

  14. Leo Maglen

    Helen was the kind of economist I would have liked to be – as if. She gave me tremendous support at crucial times in my career, for which I will be forever grateful. She deserved to be much more widely known, and listened to more carefully and more often in Australia and the wider world.

    Vale Dr Hughes

  15. That’s very sad, but what a contribution she made. Pretty well everything she ever had in Quadrant I forced the people around me to read..

  16. Nina Blunck

    An incredible woman. I feel honoured to have worked with her at CIS and will never forget her warmth, wit and sharp mind. A true tour de force. Rest in peace Helen.

  17. Aliice

    Hers was a great contribution to the sad field of economics, and the even sadder field of violence and misery in remote aboriginal communities.

    Homage due for withstanding both..

    Full respect to Helen Hughes

  18. Jessie

    Thank you for this lovely overview on the life and work of Helen Hughes.

    The development and aid debate will be a poorer one without her.
    She taught many and supported others to gain human and economic freedoms, often through their long struggles.
    She will be sadly missed.

  19. I am really devastated by his terrible news. Helen was a great support to me and my late wife Maria, such a good woman, always inspiring and motivating, as I’m sure everybody who worked with her would be fully aware. But everything she fought for and believed in will not be forgotten, I fervently hope. Such a good dear friend and mentor, I’ll never forget the scrambled eggs she cooked for me when I stayed with her, such a kind and wonderful person.

  20. Bogdanov

    Hughes was a member of the Communist Party of Australia until sometime in the 1960s. She was based in PNG, ostensibly for development research, in part as an activist-organiser at a time when PNG was still an Australian colony, and there were high hopes that third world revolution could be fomented there.
    Her CPA membership and PNG posting are all public record.
    Colleagues and comrades remember her as of a Stalinist disposition well beyond the 1963 split, when the Maoists went off seprately, and the CPA began to put some – not much – distance between itself and Moscow.
    Whether she left the party after Prague ’68, or before, and whether her departure was related to that – or to the CPA’s criticism of the USSR – is not known.

  21. Wolfgang Kasper

    We mourn the passing of a bright mind, a great economist and – above all – a woman with a great heart. Before I first met Helen some 25 years ago, a friend told me that she was endowed by a great ‘bullshit detector’. Indeed, she would not suffer pretentious fools! When we first met, she got stuck into me straight away for being too libertarian, trusting blindly in markets. But before long, after her definite return to Australian shores, Helen put as much trust in human intelligence at work and coordinated in markets as anyone, no doubt encouraged by her husband Graeme Dorrance.
    I was privileged to work with her on a variety of issues. I benefited from her wisdom and her generous hospitality. I enjoyed sparring with her and sharing a giggle about human frailty and politics.
    I will miss her,

  22. Eddstrous

    A sad loss. Why confine her greatness to the “female” side of economics? She played in all leagues

  23. warwick

    A good economist, a bureaucratic in-fighter, and a wonderful human being. Vale Helen Hughes.

  24. Limin Mao

    As a personal mentor, Helen has great influence on me when I came as an overseas student from China some 15 years ago. I basically finished my PhD at the time living with her and her lovely late husband Graeme. They gave me a loving family here. As a medically trained person coming from overseas, my pursuit in HIV social research took a really steep learning curve but Helen and Graeme were always interesting in my work and we agreed to disagree on a range of social issues during discussion and debates. Over the years, there had been a lot of accusation towards Helen, but I know so closely over the last 15 years her heart over people who are in a socially disadvantaged position. She would agree with me that good economics eventually is a science of helping people to live in a better society, whatever the doctrines are. Vale Helen, with love.

  25. Mark Hughes

    >Hughes was a member of the Communist Party of Australia until sometime in the 1960s.
    >She was based in PNG
    >Her CPA membership and PNG posting are all public record.

    My mother, Helen Hughes, left the Communist Party of Australia in the early 1950’s. She was never posted to or based in PNG.

    My father Ian Hughes, also left the Communist Party of Australia in the early 1950’s. He did his graduate degrees in anthropology in PNG in the 70’s, so he lived there for several years.

    My parents were/are completely open about their membership of the Communist Party. It was a subject of continuing amusement for my mother.

    In the papers I co-wrote with Helen, we spent vast amounts of time trying to ensure our facts were right. If she was still alive, she would be hooting with laughter at people who are publicly demonstrating their incompetence by writing about her without getting even the basic facts right. ROFLMAO

    Mark Hughes

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