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If Complexity was a person, she would be a Socialist. Jean Boulton on the politics of systems thinking.

Duncan Green's picture

Jean Boulton (physicist, management consultant and social scientist, right) responds to Owen Barder’s Wednesday post on thinking of development as a property of a complex adaptive system.

Jean BoultonI’d like to go a bit further than Owen on the implications of complexity for how we understand power and politics. It is generally the case that the powerful get more powerful and the big get bigger. We know this through bitter experience, captured in complexity language by the notion of ‘positive feedback loops’ which equate to the economists’ ‘increasing returns’. In general there is no reason to expect that economies will self-regulate and find a ‘natural’ balance. Even forests, if left to themselves for long enough, reduce in diversity, increase in efficiency and become ‘locked in’ to ecological patterns that are hard to invade and change and can easily collapse (see below, left). Despite the popularity of the phrase ‘complex adaptive systems’, complex systems do not always adapt.

Instead, complexity suggests that  if we want economic development that equalizes power, reduces inequality and incorporates longer-term environmental goals, there is a need for some sort of regulatory processes to counter the seemingly inevitable coalescing of power and wealth in fewer and fewer hands. Otherwise the rise out of poverty is linked more to growth than to development (development meaning a qualitative change in shape and form of the economy rather than a quantitative change – you can obviously have both). And an economy that is growing can in fact take our attention away from underlying structural exacerbations of inequality. Growth cannot go on forever, as land, water and minerals are consumed – not to mention the impact on climate change – but growth can mask just who captures the bulk of resources and can exert control over governments, markets and societies.
 

Getting to Zero in the fight against extreme poverty

Lisa Horner's picture

We could be the generation that puts an end to extreme poverty. This is a bold claim that often prompts raised eyebrows and murmurs of disbelief. But it is an idea that Save the Children, The World Bank, and others have been reiterating as we engage with the international process to define a new  framework to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – a set of concrete human development targets that have united global efforts to fight poverty since 2002, and are set to expire in 2015. 

But while ending extreme poverty is, of course, a laudable vision, is it a feasible proposition?  Could we really be the generation that achieves it, finishing the job that the MDGs started?