Lall made contributions to development economics in three major areas.
The first of these came early in the form of pioneering work on transfer pricing by multinational enterprises, based especially on an empirical investigation of corporations operating in the pharmaceutical industry. It showed basically how multinationals could use intra-firm pricing and accounting mechanisms to siphon out, or invisibly repatriate, profits from their overseas enterprises. This was accompanied by extensive work on the role of foreign investment and multinationals in developing economies, done in part in collaboration with one of his early mentors, Paul Streeten. Lall’s fascination with India and the Indian economy led to his opening up a related, highly significant field of work – the phenomenon of Third World multinationals, and developing countries as the exporters of technology.
A second interwoven strand of work was on the development of technological capability in developing countries. Technology has generally mystified economists, and in turn, and true to their profession, economic theorists have tended to mystify technology. Lall stands in a fine line of thinkers who have challenged the black-box, reductionist view of technology in economic theorising. In its place, he attempted to develop over time the notion of the construction of technological capability, whether in an enterprise, in a firm, in an industry, or in an economy. He argued that, far from just “picking” industrial winners, the East Asian tiger economies had carefully and proactively “created” winners through the generation of technological capability and the acquisition of industrial competitiveness.
This feeds directly into a third group of ideas. How should the industrialist, or the policymaker, in a developing country set about generating technological capability and industrial competitiveness? Lall’s empirical work carefully scrutinised the validity of the ubiquitous assertions that unrestricted flows of foreign direct investment (FDI) through multinationals would lead to effective technology transfer into the manufacturing sectors of developing economies. Lall tends seriously to question the automaticity of any such benefit transfer; he shows, however, the relevance of an active state policy vis-à-vis the domestic manufacturing and technology sectors.
The importance of the role of the state in generating a successful path of competitive industrialisation was one of the continuous threads running through his work. He did not balk at taking on positions that were unpopular among the neo-liberal unfettered-globalisation school. Very early in his career, he wrote a paper which toyed critically with the notion of dependency. Ever since then, the issue of the viability of autonomous, not autarkic, industrialisation in Third World economies was for him a latent leitmotif. From start to finish, Lall remained a passionate, but scientifically rigorous, advocate of Third World industrial development.
The Sanjaya Lall Visiting Professorship in Development and Business, created to honour Lall’s academic legacy, has established itself as one of the most prestigious appointments for visiting scholars in the field of economics. It is currently held by Professor Paul Krugman, a Nobel Laureate in economics. Past holders include Professor Dani Rodrik and Professor Robert Wade.