Horace Belshaw was born in Wigan, Lancashire, England, on 9 February 1898, the son of James Belshaw, a master greengrocer, and his wife, Mary Pilkington. His father was one of the first Labour councillors in Britain and the family was active in the Primitive Methodist church. Emigrating to New Zealand with his family in 1906, James Belshaw set up shop in Christchurch and later became a Methodist home missioner.
Horace matriculated from Christchurch Boys' High School at 15, and went pupil-teaching at his old primary school until he was old enough, at 17, to go to training college. Brief periods as an agricultural instructor and in military service in New Zealand were followed by secondary school teaching in Ashburton. His university study was all done extramurally through Canterbury College; he focused first on geology, but switched to economics under the influence of James Shelley and J. B. Condliffe.
In 1920 Belshaw graduated BA, transferred to Hāwera Technical High School and married Marion Lilian McHardie, a nurse, on 31 August in Wanganui. He was awarded an MA with first-class honours in 1921 for a thesis on the dairy industry. Canterbury College appointed him a tutorial class lecturer in economics, first on the West Coast and then in Timaru, until in 1924 he received an award to study at Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge. There J. M. Keynes brought him into the vigorous discussions of the Political Economy Club. He completed his doctorate on agricultural fluctuations and published an important article based on it in 1926. His ability was recognised by appointment to a temporary lectureship at Cambridge in 1926–27 and then, at the age of 29, to the foundation chair of economics at Auckland University College.
Belshaw returned to New Zealand well versed in the latest economic theory, and kept in touch with subsequent major developments. However, through seminars, discussion groups and weekend retreats he encouraged his students to turn their minds to current New Zealand issues and their wider social implications. Outside the university, Belshaw was active in the Workers' Educational Association: he organised and directed several of the first WEA summer schools.
In the 1920s and 1930s Belshaw wrote extensively on the economic position of New Zealand farmers, focusing on their increasing indebtedness and possible reforms to the systems of land tenure and credit, including mortgage adjustment and the need for a central bank. He was active in debunking social credit, which he described as 'The Douglas Fallacy'. Belshaw directed a research project that culminated in the encyclopaedic publication Agricultural organization in New Zealand in 1936, and was an editor of, and a frequent contributor to, the Economic Record.
In 1932 Belshaw, with fellow professors Douglas Copland, James Hight and Albert Tocker, was appointed by the government to an economic committee to advise on measures for dealing with the depression. The committee recommended depreciation of the exchange rate and mortgage adjustment as well as wage cuts. Most of the recommendations were put into effect, but the Treasury opposed depreciation and the government delayed implementing it until 1933. In 1934 Belshaw accepted a year's appointment as an economic adviser to the minister of finance, Gordon Coates. He admired Coates's willingness to take hard political decisions along lines that Belshaw personally considered fair. However, the electorate gave the New Zealand Labour Party an overwhelming mandate in 1935 to embark on an alternative course, assisted by improving export prices.
Belshaw was not unsympathetic to elements of the new government's policies. He approved of the government having the power to exercise complete control over the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, but counselled against tying up the resources of the bank in loans that were not liquid, to the detriment of its central task of controlling currency and credit. He also expressed concern about likely adverse effects in the longer term of some of the government's attempts to insulate New Zealanders against external fluctuations, notably guaranteed prices for dairy products and import and exchange controls.
In the late 1930s he took a strong interest in the difficulties likely to confront the rapidly growing numbers of Māori unable to find employment in rural areas. In addition to addressing the issues involved in enabling Māori to be self-supporting on their own lands, he advocated a generous approach to educational, health and housing assistance to those forced to move to the cities. He organised and chaired a successful conference of young Māori leaders in 1939.
During the Second World War Belshaw collaborated with colleagues in Auckland and with fellow members of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs in promoting discussion of key issues of post-war organisation, development and security in New Zealand and internationally. In 1944 he was appointed research secretary to the Institute of Pacific Relations in New York. Two years later he became professor of agricultural economics at the Davis campus of the University of California and also economist at the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics. His writing in this period reflects his growing interest in rural welfare and agrarian reform in developing countries. With others, he produced a survey of reconstruction problems and needs for the Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East in 1947. His background made him an ideal appointee to the post of director of the Agricultural Division of the Rural Welfare branch of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in 1948. With typical energy and enthusiasm, he organised surveys, conferences and action-oriented programmes, and motivated constructive work by others.
When the headquarters of the FAO shifted to Rome in 1951, he took up the Macarthy chair of economics at Victoria University College, Wellington. He continued to participate in economic development projects and conferences overseas, but his capacity to accept invitations was severely constrained by the need for his personal presence in a growing department and faculty with a very small staff. Nevertheless, he managed to lead two United Nations missions on community organisation and development, one for southern and South East Asia in 1953 and the other for Africa in 1956. He also reported and advised on economic development in the south Pacific. In 1958 he produced an extensive report for the FAO on agricultural credit in economically underdeveloped countries. Throughout the 1950s Belshaw continued to write on the theory of economic development, emphasising ways in which developing countries, in particular, could achieve sustained growth.
Belshaw's primary interest had always been to seek pragmatic solutions to major economic and social problems. He wanted his staff and students to be well versed in the theoretical models developed in British and American journals, but expected them to be aware of the limitations of these models as a basis for understanding reality and formulating policies. He saw a need for a broader and more integrated approach than that taken in the current techniques of economic analysis, especially in the developing countries where 'the complexity of social interrelationships and the importance of "non-economic" factors are brought home more strikingly'.
Belshaw was disappointed by the dearth of competent economic research that he found in New Zealand, and saw as the best means of improvement the creation of an independent institute, supported particularly by business, with government playing a relatively minor role. He marshalled strong support from the Reserve Bank, a royal commission and a group of far-sighted businessmen for the establishment of the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research in 1958.
Belshaw retired early, at the end of 1958, in order to leave himself freer to accept overseas assignments and to develop with his wife a property they had purchased at Whenuapai. Early in 1962, having seen Marion off to visit their two sons, Cyril and Michael, in North America, he set off to take up an assignment at the FAO headquarters and later to chair a conference in Addis Ababa. Shortly after arriving in Rome he suffered a fatal stroke, dying on 20 March. He was buried in Rome.
Horace Belshaw ranks as New Zealand's most notable applied economist of his generation. He was a man of broad, humane vision and great vitality, with a warm and friendly personality and great determination to apply his talents towards the betterment of the lot of his fellow citizens in New Zealand and the world.