Ernst Friedrich "Fritz" Schumacher (1911–1977) was an influential economic thinker, statistician and economist. He was Chief Economic Advisor to the UK National Coal Board for two decades, wrote “Small is Beautiful!” and founded the development charity Practical Action.
Schumacher was born in Bonn in 1911 and educated in Bonn and Berlin and at the universities of Oxford and Columbia. He then worked in business, farming and journalism in Germany. He moved back to England in 1937 to escape fascism but was interned on an isolated farm as an ‘enemy alien’.
Despite this he wrote a notable economic paper which attracted the attention of John Maynard Keynes. Keynes recognised his ability and enabled him to contribute to Britain’s economic and financial organisation during the war. Later, Keynes found him a position at Oxford University.
From 1950 to 1970 he was Chief Economic Advisor to the UK National Coal Board (ie the nationalised coal industry) from which position he advocated the use of coal rather than oil or nuclear power. He also advised the governments of Burma, Germany, India and Zambia on development issues and wrote widely.
His time in Burma led him to a critique of mainstream economics in the name of “Buddhist economics”. In 1966 Schumacher and others founded the Intermediate Technology Development Group (now Practical Action). In this context “Intermediate” meant technologies that were more effective than traditional ones but less complex and capital intensive than those used in the West. ITDG insisted that anything it installed should be able to be installed and maintained with skills available locally.
His most famous book – Small Is Beautiful – was published in 1973.
Schumacher’s ideas are not easy to summarise and changed over his lifetime but I would pick out these four:
· The main purpose of economic activity should be to meet human needs not to create profit.
· Human needs include the need for meaningful work.
· New and more ‘efficient’ technologies are not always better than old technologies. Each should be judged on its merits.
· Most needs can best be met by work that is locally organised to meet the needs of the local community.
A number of organisations apart from Practical Action are inspired by Schumacher’s work. They include the Schumacher College, Resurgence & Ecologist, Green Books, the New Economics Foundation, the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, the Soil Association and the Centre for Alternative Technology.
He also had an intense interest in religion which led him from atheism through Buddhism and meditation to, eventually, Catholicism.