One of BU’s leading economists, John Harris, passed away earlier this summer. He was a leader in the field of development economics, and his 1970 paper laying out a new framework for understanding labor markets in the developing world is considered one of the 20 most influential papers ever published in economics. He will be greatly missed by colleagues, family and friends, and former students.
John Harris received his PhD in economics from Northwestern University in 1967. He joined the economics department faculty at MIT in 1966 as an Assistant Professor, moved to the Economics and Urban Studies department as an Associate Professor in 1971 and then to the Economics department at Boston University in 1975 as Professor.
During 1968-69 he visited the Institute for Development Studies in Nairobi. His paper with Michael Todaro in the 1970 American Economic Review (AER) on a two sector model of migration and development subsequently became a classic in the field, and the only paper in development economics which appeared in the Top Ten list of most cited AER papers in the 20th century. Growing out of his experience of problems of urban unemployment in Nairobi, the paper reversed the standard formulation of rural-urban migration in developing countries by Arthur Lewis from the 1950s. In the Lewis theory, the problem of economic development is a misallocation of labor between rural and urban areas owing to institutional rigidities in agriculture which prevent workers from migrating to urban areas where they are more productive. The Harris-Todaro turned the logic of the Lewis theory on its head, where institutional rigidities appeared in the form of labor market frictions in the urban sector instead of the rural sector. These resulted in excessive migration and urban unemployment. The theory generated a paradoxical result whereby urban unemployment is aggravated by efforts to generate more employment in urban areas, owing to induced effects on migration. The paper had a profound impact on both policy and research on migration and development, becoming the standard workhorse model of rural urban migration in development economics to this day.
From the early 1980s, Harris became involved in research and policy projects in Indonesia and Africa. He served as an advisor to the National Planning Agency and Central Bureau of Statistics of Indonesia, and was a member of the Advisory Group of Macroeconomic Research Network for Eastern and Southern Africa (precursor to the African Economic Research Consortium). At Boston University he was Director of the multidisciplinary African Studies Center between 1975 and 1987. During the 1990s, his research switched to effects of financial liberalization on capital structures of firms. In the past decade he was involved in a multidisciplinary project with the Pardee Center at Boston University on effects of remittances by migrant workers in the rehabilitation of post-conflict African countries.