Passing away Professor Ferdinand van Dam

Former lecturer at ISS

Former ISS professor development expert who never shied away from unconventional opinions, passed away at the end of 2021.


(Written by Nico Schrijver, formerly at ISS and currently State Councillor, Council of State, the Netherlands and professor emeritus international law at Leiden University).

Ferdinand van Dam passed away at the end of 2021 aged 90. Van Dam had worked several times at the International Institute of Social Studies as a visiting professor. He was a gifted teacher, who enjoyed discussions and contacts with the participants at ISS. Van Dam never shied away from taking unconventional opinions, having turned somewhat sadder but perhaps wiser during a lifetime of serving in the field of international development cooperation as a civil servant of the Netherlands.

In 1957, Ferdinand graduated in Economics at the University of Amsterdam. Four years later, in 1961, he defended his PhD on Collective Agriculture in Densely Populated Areas. He started his career in 1957 with positions as FAO officer in Rome and Tel Aviv. In 1960, Ferdinand van Dam joined the staff of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Division International Organisations and subsequently Development Co-operation. He would enjoy an illustrious career in this field, with positions such as Head of Policy Planning and Deputy DG International Cooperation in The Hague, Executive Director at the World Bank in Washington, member of the UN Committee for Development Planning in New York, and OECD Ambassador in Paris.

Throughout his career, Van Dam remained committed to the academic study and teaching. Personally, I took classes with him on Development Economics at Groningen University in the 1970s. During these years the emergence of the ‘Third World’ (currently called the Global South) and the efforts to establish a New International Economic Order (NIEO) were in the headlines. Van Dam enjoyed expressing alternative views and provoked not seldom his audience that the Third World was a social construct of the West and hardly existed in reality. He also predicted that the NIEO would soon have ‘antiquarian value’ only.

Van Dam stimulated me to think thoroughly on all those matters and allowed me as a law student to study the books of Gunnar Myrdal (Asian Drama, The Challenge of World Poverty) and Jan Tinbergen (Reshaping the International Order) for my essay and oral exam; works which have inspired me for a lifetime.

After his part-time professorship at Groningen (1965-79), Van Dam served for 12 years (1979-91) in this position at ISS. Next to participating in some programmes in Economics, he lectured in particular courses on International Economic Relations in the diploma programmes International Relations and Development (IRD) and International Law and Organization for Development. When he retired from his last post as OECD ambassador, he returned to ISS to teach in these programmes. His lectures were crystal clear and a mixture of policy analyses (often based upon reports of international economic institutions) and sobering lessons from practice. Throughout his life Van Dam remained sceptical on what international development cooperation and in particular the West could contribute to this, sometimes even advocating a ‘benign neglect’ rather than a ‘missionary urge’.   While he stood for the harsh reality and rejected quirky ideologies, Ferdinand van Dam was nonetheless passionate to indicate, and contribute to improving the conditions for sound macro-economic development and human dignity by combating the causes of underdevelopment. This is what he did during a lifetime in a changing world.

Nico Schrijver

The thoughts of the whole ISS community go out to Professor van Dam's family and friends.

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