OR rules

Francisco Sagasti.jpg

Paul Randall reflects on the career and ideas of the new President of Peru


Francisco Sagasti, who became President of Peru on 17 November, is no stranger to the OR community nor to the UK - both as an associate researcher at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex and from memorable presentations at both the LSE annual lecture on OR in Development and as Plenary speaker at IFORS 2002 in Edinburgh.

Initially an industrial engineer, he went on to complete a PhD in Operational Research and Social Systems Science at the University of Pennsylvania. He worked in various advisory roles for the Government of Peru, before international renown as Chief of the Strategic Planning Division and Senior Advisor at the World Bank and chairman of the United Nations Advisory Committee on Science and Technology for Development.

Returning to Peru in 1992, he founded a think tank and research consultancy – FORO. The following year he, and others, launched the Agenda: PERÚ programme designed to improve governance and development. As he remarked, “this was carried out under difficult conditions because of opposition from the authoritarian regime in power at that time”. Surely, an understatement.

In 2016 he helped form the Purple Party and was elected to Congress in 2020. It would not be appropriate to attempt an explanation of the Byzantine complexities of Peruvian politics here. Suffice it to say, he became the third person to serve as President within eight days, after the impeachment of the sitting President for being ‘morally incompetent’ and the resignation, following the popular protest, of Sagasti’s immediate predecessor.

Sagasti’s wide range of interests is demonstrated in his 25 books and over 150 papers. As he explains, he had a “highly eclectic education, built on engineering, economic and mathematical foundations, complemented with excursions into strategic planning, behavioural sciences, history and philosophy”. That background has led to a focus on integrating apparently disconnected elements into coherent wholes. He has done so in a way that recognised the counterpoint between broad intellectual pursuits and the practicalities of getting things done.

His grounding in the theoretical and practical approach to systems thinking meant that the political, and policy, was integral to his work. That was exemplified when he delivered the closing Plenary session of IFORS 2002 under the title “Operations Research and Management Sciences for development in a fractured global order”. bit.ly/Sagasti

He explained how OR had evolved in the 70s from being a collection of tools and techniques to a range of intervention methods and roles. A similar evolution could be seen in the 90s where OR, especially for developing countries and international institutions, was increasingly a matter of finding metaphors. The increasingly fractured world order (and how much more so today) brought with its new challenges for OR so that it is:

  • no longer possible to focus only on resource allocation and on setting priorities for activities within stable institutions and contexts.
  • necessary to examine institutions and focus on institutional redesign.
  • essential to continuously assess the impact of a rapidly changing context.
  • essential to articulate visions, explicitly considering values and aspirations.

He illustrated his thinking with several case studies. Particularly memorable was his description of a software tool (ascribed to Alejandro Afuso) employing OR techniques to improve project selection and resource allocation using data on outcomes and local poverty levels. The result, as he pointed out with some delight, was to reduce political influence and corruption in project funding decisions.

As leader of a small party in a politically volatile environment, with elections due in April, his ability to implement his ideas may be circumscribed, even as President. Nonetheless, the emphasis, in his inaugural address, on ‘long-term policies to make science and technology a prominent part of policies’, suggests he intends trying.