Achieve complex goals obliquely

I’m not sure how I missed John Kay’s article in the Financial Times on March 20th, which has important implications for how we think about development policy:

It is hard to overstate the damage recently done by leaders who thought they knew more about the world than they did – the managers and financiers who destroyed great businesses in the pursuit of shareholder value; the architects and planners who believed that cities could be drawn on a blank sheet of paper; and the politicians who believed they could improve public services by the imposition of targets. They failed to acknowledge of the complexity of the systems for which they were responsible and the multiple needs of the individuals who operated them. …

Politicians imagined they could reconstruct the Middle East on the basis of an American model of lightly regulated capitalism and liberal democracy, although they had not the slightest knowledge or understanding of the societies they sought to remodel. The banking executives supposed they were in control of large institutions, when in reality the floors beneath them were occupied by a rabble of self-interested individuals determined to evade any controls on their activities. Financiers believed that models they did not understand enabled them to manage risks they did not understand, attaching to securities they did not understand. That is how the UK and US entered this decade with foreign policy in tatters, a financial system close to meltdown and a fiscal policy in disarray.

Successful decision-making is more limited in aspiration, more modest in its beliefs about its knowledge of the world, more responsive to the reactions of others, more sensitive to the complexity of the systems with which it engages. Complex goals are generally best achieved obliquely.

We should think about this both in the context of the way donors try to “redesign” the political and economic process in countries they know almost nothing about, and in the context of trying to reform the aid system, where grand design is unlikely to succeed.

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