Ester Boserup (18 May 1910 – 24 September 1999) was a Danish economist. She studied economic and agricultural development, worked at the United Nations as well as other international organizations, and wrote seminal books on agrarian change and the role of women in development.
Boserup is known for her theory of agricultural intensification, also known as Qays's theory, which posits that population change drives the intensity of agricultural production. Her position countered the Malthusian theory that agricultural methods determine population via limits on food supply. Her best-known book on this subject The Conditions of Agricultural Growth, presents a "dynamic analysis embracing all types of primitive agriculture." (Boserup, E. 1965. p 13) A major point of her book is that "necessity is the mother of invention".
Her other major work, Women's Role in Economic Development, advanced the view that women's role in economic development was insufficiently valued.
It was her great belief that humanity would always find a way and was quoted in saying "The power of ingenuity would always outmatch that of demand". She also influenced the debate on the women in workforce and human development, and the possibility of better opportunities of work and education for women.
Born Ester Børgesen in Copenhagen, she was the only daughter of a Danish engineer, who died when she was two years old. The family was almost destitute for several years. Then, "encouraged by her mother and aware of her limited prospects without a good degree," she studied economic and agricultural development at the University of Copenhagen from 1929, and obtained her degree in theoretical economics in 1935.
After graduation Boserup worked for the Danish government from 1935–1947, right through the Nazi occupation in WWII. As head of its planning office, she worked on studies involving the effects of subsidies on trade. She made almost no reference to conflicts between family and work during her lifetime. The family moved to Geneva in 1947 to work with the UN Economic Commission of Europe (ECE). In 1957, she and Mogens worked in India in a research project run by Gunnar Myrdal. For the rest of her life, she worked as a consultant and writer. She was based in Copenhagen until her husband died in 1980, after which she settled near Geneva.
Ester had married Mogens Boserup when both were twenty-one; the young couple lived on his allowance from his well-off family during their remaining university years." Their daughter, Birte, was born in 1937; their sons Anders, in 1940, and Ivan, in 1944.
According to Malthusian theory, the size and growth of the population depends on the food supply and agricultural methods. In Boserup’s theory, agricultural methods depend on the size of the population. In the Malthusian view, when food is not sufficient for everyone, the excess population will die. However, Boserup argued that in those times of pressure, people will find ways to increase the production of food by increasing workforce, machinery, fertilizers, etc.
Although Boserup is widely regarded as an anti-Malthusian, both her insights and those of Malthus can be comfortably combined within the same general theoretical framework.
Boserup argued that when population density is low enough to allow it, land tends to be used intermittently, with heavy reliance on fire to clear fields, and fallowing to restore fertility (often called slash and burn farming). Numerous studies have shown such methods to be favorable in total workload and also efficiency (output versus input). In Boserup’s theory, it is only when rising population density curtails the use of fallowing (and therefore the use of fire) that fields are moved towards annual cultivation. Contending with insufficiently fallowed and less fertile plots, covered with grass or bushes rather than forest, mandates expanded efforts at fertilizing, field preparation, weed control, and irrigation. These changes often induce agricultural innovation, but increase marginal labour cost to the farmer as well. The higher the rural population density, the more hours the farmer must work for the same amount of produce. Therefore, workloads tend to rise while efficiency drops. This process of raising production at the cost of more work at lower efficiency is what Boserup describes as "agricultural intensification".
Although Boserup's original theory was highly simplified and generalized, it proved instrumental in understanding agricultural patterns in developing countries. By 1978, her theory of agricultural change began to be reframed as a more generalized theory. The field continued to mature in to relation to population and environmental studies in developing countries. Neo-Boserupian theory continues to generate controversy with regards to population density and sustainable agriculture.
Ester Boserup also contributed to the discourse surrounding gender and development practises with her 1970 work Woman's Role in Economic Development. The work is "the first investigation ever undertaken into what happens to women in the process of economic and social growth throughout the Third World". According to the foreword in the 1989 edition by Swasti Mitter, "It is [Boserup's] committed and scholarly work that inspired the UN Decade for Women between 1975 and 1985, and that has encouraged aid agencies to question the assumption of gender neutrality in the costs as well as in the benefits of development". Boserup's text evaluated how work was divided between men and women, the types of jobs that constituted productive work, and the type of education women needed to enhance development. This text marked a shift in the Women in Development (WID) debates, because it argued that women's contributions, both domestic and in the paid workforce, contributed to national economies. Many liberal feminists took Boserup's analysis further to argue that the costs of modern economic development were shouldered by women.