Governing through indicators.

Author:Merry, Sally Engle
Position:Proceedings of the One Hundred Third Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law: International Law as Law

This panel was convened at 9:00 a.m., Friday, March 27, by its moderator, Benedict Kingsbury of New York University School of Law, who introduced the panelists: Leslie Benton of Transparency International-USA; Sally Engle Merry of New York University; and Christopher Stone of Harvard Kennedy School. *


As indicators become more widely used in global governance, particularly in the areas of development planning and human rights compliance, it is increasingly important to understand how they are affecting processes of international legal regulation. Indicators are widely used to assess development and human well-being, rule of law, the status of minorities, and compliance with human rights principles. The origins of indicators as modes of knowledge and governance stretch back to the creation of modern nation states in the early nineteenth century, and practices of business management a few centuries earlier. Technologies of audit developed in the sphere of business regulation have jumped domains to global governance.

Indicators introduce into the field of global human rights law a form of knowledge production in which forms of violation and inequality, otherwise obscured, are made visible through numerical measures. Statistics on income, health, education, and torture, for example, are used to assess compliance with human rights norms and progress in improving human rights conditions. The numbers convey an aura of objective truth and facilitate comparisons. However, indicators typically conceal their political and theoretical origins. They rely on practices of measurement and counting that are themselves opaque.

The world of civil society organizations has also been transformed by the increasing use of statistical measures. There are demands for quantifying the accomplishments of civil society organizations and for "evidence-based" funding. Donors to human rights organizations want indicators of success, such as reductions in trafficking in persons or diminished rates of poverty and disease. As donors move closer to business, they have adopted business-based means of accounting for productivity and accomplishments. The concept of "venture philanthropy" underscores this new perspective. Recipient organizations are tasked to develop measures of what they have accomplished within the period of funding. Given the difficulties of measuring accomplishments such as "increased awareness of human rights," NGOs tend to count proxies for these accomplishments, such as number of training sessions or number of people trained. Clearly, the use of quantitative measures of accomplishment and the introduction of ranking systems based on these measures is transforming the way these organizations do their work.

Indicators are statistical measures that are used to summarize complex data into a simple number or rank that is meaningful to policy makers and the public. They tend to ignore specificity and context in favor of superficial, but standardized, knowledge. An indicator presents clearly the most important features relevant to informed decision-making about one issue or question. (1) Although indicators are quantitative, expressed in rates, ratios, percentages, or numbers, some are based on qualitative information converted into numbers. A recent effort to develop indicators for the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), for example, uses quantitative indicators such as literacy rates, maternal mortality rates, and labor force participation rates that are sex-disaggregated, along with qualitative indicators such as the existence of legislation on equal inheritance rights, policies establishing quotas for girl...

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