Kemal Dervis, Who Eased Turkey’s Economic Crisis, Dies at 74
Kemal Dervis, an economist who was instrumental in leading his native Turkey out of an economic crisis early in this century, and who later became the first person to lead the United Nations Development Program from a country that had received developmental aid from the program, died on Sunday in Bethesda, Md. He was 74.
The Brookings Institution, where Mr. Dervis had been the director and vice president of the global economy and development program and was a nonresident distinguished fellow, confirmed his death. Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency said he died of an unspecified illness.
Mr. Dervis had been working in various posts for the World Bank for two decades when, in early 2001, prices in Turkey began skyrocketing and the currency, the lira, plunged in value. The journalist Andrew Finkel wrote in April of that year that “Turks carry in their wallets 10-million-lira bills, the highest denominated note in the world, and after the recent debacle worth well under $10.”
The crisis was said to have been set off by a disagreement between Turkey’s president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, and prime minister, Bulent Ecevit, over the pace of anticorruption efforts; banks and financial markets reacted badly to the tiff. The meltdown was fast-moving, and Mr. Dervis, at the time a vice president of the World Bank, was seen as a savior.
“Ecevit, then the prime minister, called Dervis to come and help the country as a minister,” M. Hakan Yavuz, a political science professor at the University of Utah and an expert on Turkey, said by email. “He agreed and came to serve his country. His economic policies set the basis of the major economic development between 2002 and 2020 in Turkey.”
Mr. Dervis took the newly created post of minister of the economy. “Even Dervis’s Name Was Enough” to calm the crisis, a headline in the newspaper Hurriyet said, noting that the announcement of his appointment had boosted markets and eased interest rates — for a day.
But dealing with the crisis was actually far more complicated. It required Mr. Dervis to negotiate loans with the International Monetary Fund, push for systemic changes in the banking system, try to rein in corruption and, at first, inflict a fair amount of pain through spending cuts.
“Don’t expect me to produce policies to save us just for today,” Mr. Dervis said in mid-April 2001. “We can’t dynamite our future in order to save today.”
His policies eventually brought about a sustained period of economic stability, one Professor Yavuz said lasted until just a few years ago, when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan retreated from Mr. Dervis’s policies and allowed corruption to flourish.
Mr. Dervis stayed in the ministry post for a bit more than a year before he ran for a seat in Parliament; he won, and went on to serve in that body until 2005. That year Secretary General Kofi Annan chose him to lead the United Nations development office, which works to help countries eliminate poverty and establish sustainable economies.
It was a history-making appointment: Mr. Dervis was the first person to lead the office who was from a country that had received aid from it. (Previous administrators had been American or British.)
Mr. Dervis, Professor Yavuz said, “always focused on the social consequences of economic policies.”
“As the head of the U.N. Development Program, he had a deep sense of helping and caring for the vulnerable sector of the population,” he said, adding that Mr. Dervis sought to protect that group from the negative consequences of economic policies.
He focused on how globalization was affecting poorer populations. He also spotlighted the expected effects of climate change, which he said would have a particular impact on the poor in many countries.
“His political identity was a social democrat,” Professor Yavuz added, “since he wanted to see a ‘social market’ in which the state plays a significant role in helping the poor and those who are in need.”
After four years at the United Nations, Mr. Dervis joined Brookings, where he continued to work on ways to make economies benefit everyone.
“He advanced a robust research agenda on strengthening the drivers of global growth, ensuring that no one is left behind,” the institution said in a statement, “and proposing policies on the future of global governance and the technological transformation of the world economy, with special focus on productivity, inclusiveness, sustainability, and international cooperation.”
Kemal Dervis was born on Jan. 10, 1949, in Istanbul. He earned a bachelor’s degree at the London School of Economics in 1968 and a master’s degrees in economics there in 1970. In 1973 he received a Ph.D. from Princeton University, and he taught there for a time in the 1970s, as well as at Middle East Technical University in Turkey.
Information on survivors was not immediately available.
Professor Yavuz said that Mr. Dervis was frequently criticized — not just by the merchants in Turkey who felt his changes in 2001 were not helping quickly enough, but also by leftists who thought he wasn’t leftist enough, and by Islamists and nationalists who considered him an agent of Western imperialism. But throughout, he said, Mr. Dervis was looking at the big picture.
“He cared about creating a socioeconomic system so every citizen could excel their potential,” he said.