PUBLICATION: The Rise of Global Governance Indicators

A new paper by DRI affiliated faculty member Kevin Davis and NYU Law colleagues Benedict Kinsbury and Sally Engle Merry takes on the proliferation of global governance indicators like the UN Human Development index and World Bank Ease of Doing Business rankings:

The burgeoning production and use of indicators has not been accompanied by systematic study of and reflection on the implications, possibilities and pitfalls of this practice. As a result, little attention has been paid to questions such as: What social processes surround the creation and use of indicators? How do the conditions of production influence the kinds of knowledge that indicators provide? How does the use of indicators in global governance change the nature of decision-making? How does it affect the distribution of power among and between those who govern and those who are governed?

Theoretically, the authors hypothesize, indicators benefit global decision-makers. First, because the indicators simplify, they reduce the cost of decision-making. Second, decisions based on indicators are expected to be transparent, consistent, and grounded in scientific expertise, which makes the decision appear more authoritative.

But such authority may not always be warranted: the editing process required to turn raw data into easily digestible indicators removes uncertainty and makes the information seem more robust than it is.  At the same time, indicators may deepen existing inequalities, since the creators of indicators are usually powerful global actors from rich countries, and contesting indicators requires deep technical expertise.

The authors conclude:

The rapid growth in the production, use, and influence of indicators in global governance has had effects on forms of decision-making and on the shaping of public knowledge. This technology of global governance can affect the relative power and the identities of those who govern and those who are governed, and can alter patterns and possibilities of accountability. To what extent the reliance on indicators increases transparency and public scrutiny and to what extent it narrows the production of public knowledge to a small elite circle who create indicators are among key questions, with considerable theoretical and policy significance, that require substantial further empirical investigation.

The paper, "Indicators as a Technology of Global Governance" is forthcoming from the Law & Society Review. Ungated version here.