17 July 2009

Perils of the McNamara approach

One of the most intelligent men ever to hold public office, [Robert] McNamara mused in retirement on why a project that promised so much had gone so badly wrong. Decentralised markets had systematically outperformed central plans, planned development strategies had failed. Detroit’s obsession with numbers had fallen victim to the Japanese passion for quality, and the American military machine was defeated by the forces of North Vietnam. John Kay, 15 July

It's worth pondering what might have happened to the car industry if there'd been no Japan, no competition from decentralised markets. We'd have something like we have today in global affairs, where responsibility is largely handed over to huge organizations, devoid of any pressure to be competitive, efficient, or even effectual. The United Nations, for instance, or the World Bank/IMF. The decisions of any large monopolistic body are going to be determined entirely its culture and goals, and there's no inherent congruency between these goals and those of the people they are supposed to serve.

We're coming late to the idea that the evolutionary forces that have propelled most of us out of abject poverty - trial-and-error, experimentation, diverse approaches with termination of failures, adaptation - can actually be consciously deployed, as they would be under a Social Policy Bond regime. But it is heartening to read here that the idea is at last being discussed and tried in an area that desperately needs it: development.

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