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Human Development &
Capability Association

Multi-Disciplinary and People-Centred

In Memoriam – Stephan Klasen

Stephan Klasen (1966-2020)

Stephan Klasen was one of the leading development economists of his generation. Stephan straddled academic research and policy debates in a manner that few do. Academically, he was capacious. He was a world leading expert on the economics of gender, who also made enormous contributions to the economics of poverty, inequality, inclusive growth and development, environmental sustainability, and economic history among other topics, publishing a vast array of articles and books. Firmly rooted in economics, he engaged in academic dialogues with agricultural scientists, philosophers, theologians, and innumerable others. He worked too on every major region of the developing world. Over the last twenty-two years, initially in Munich, and then for most of that period in Göttingen, Stephan was the main supervisor of an extraordinary 76 PhD students. As became visible in his last years, these students were deeply devoted to him, as were the colleagues whom he influenced. Together, they represent an astonishing living legacy of development researchers and activists. Moreover, the “Göttingen Schule” of development economics that he created, almost synonymous with Stephan, is now a thriving intellectual tendency and school.  Stephan was the leading force in the recent revival of development economics in Germany. He was actively involved in the German Economics Association, the European Development Research Network (of which he was President), the Review of Income and Wealth (of which he was long-time co-Editor) and various other professional organizations.

Quite apart from his academic legacy, Stephan has had a wide influence on policy debates and institutions. Stephan never separated these two sides of his concerns, viewing the academic enterprise as made meaningful by its contribution to a better world.  He offered a compelling example to his students and colleagues as to how to span these realms. Stephan at different stages provided policy advice to the United Nations, the World Bank and other international organisations, various German government advisory bodies, and others. He sought out places in which he could contribute most, for instance by working in South Africa with the World Bank soon after the end of the apartheid regime. He was an influential member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN Committee on Development Policy, and other high-level bodies. He devoted himself to these engagements for their ability to change the world, and invariably did so. Stephan was indefatigable, improbably balancing innumerable academic and policy efforts at any one time. He did so even in the throes of the degenerative disease (ALS) that he suffered from in his last few years, exemplifying grace, concern for others, and devotion to responsibilities (ensuring for instance, that his last PhD students completed their degrees) - under the most difficult of human circumstances.

Throughout his life, Stephan remained rooted in, and always worked to advance, the values to which he was profoundly committed, reflecting the early moral influences of his family. Stephan applied his egalitarian concerns with a universal scope. His deep concern with gender equity the world over especially evinced this allegiance. But in fact all of his commitments reflected his uninterupted focus, much before it became a recognizable phrase, on global justice.

Stephan’s perspective on development was firmly linked to the human development and capabilities perspective. This reflected the role that Amartya Sen played as an interlocutor and inspiration for Stephan, from his earliest days as an undergraduate (when I first met him, in his first year as an undergraduate, when we both took Sen’s course on Hunger in the Modern World) through his graduate studies (when Sen was his supervisor) and subsequent life as a mature researcher. But it also reflected his own ethical bearings and practical dispositions. Among his many contributions to the approach, Stephan played an irreplaceable constructive role in querying and shaping the Human Development Report, contributing to the debate on the adequacy of its measures, especially those related to gender empowerment and inequality. 

Stephan was never a utopian, preferring instead to look at ways of seeing the world, and acting within it, that could make a difference in the here and now.  Stephan was a realist, but combined his sense of proportionality with an intense and abiding fire within. 

Stephan will be missed inconsolably by his wife Christine, four children, Lukas, Nicolas, Sophia, and Jeremias, and by innumerable friends, students and colleagues, the world over. But the greatest loss is for the better world that he sought unrelentingly.

– Sanjay G. Reddy





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