What do numbers have to do with defining the terms of global governance? To address that question, the Institute for International Law and Justice’s two-day conference, “Indicators as a Technology of Global Governance,” assembled a host of experts on September 13 and 14 to discuss the ramifications of indicators, or numerical data used to assess and rank performance in specific areas of governance.

The conference’s framing paper, written by Kevin Davis, Beller Family Professor of Business Law; IILJ co-director Benedict Kingsbury, Murry and Ida Becker Professor of Law; and Professor Sally Merry, described indicators’ rapidly growing role in global governance decisions and argued that the ramifications of the phenomenon had not been sufficiently analyzed.

In the conference’s introductory panel, the three professors suggested that whoever chooses an indicator is setting the agenda by determining how governance will be evaluated going forward, and, thus, how the various players will attempt to measure and solve problems. Over time, Merry said, the theory behind an indicator is lost, and the numbers produced to gauge the indicator are generally accepted. Global Visiting Professor of Law Eyal Benvenisti and University Professor Richard Stewart acted as discussants for a separate panel on the first day.

In the final panel on day two, members of the NYU Law community looked at case studies involving the use of indicators. Nehal Bhuta (LL.M. ’05), an assistant professor of international affairs at the New School and a former Hauser Research Scholar, characterized indicators as “actors,” because the numbers they entail exert real effects. To René Urueña, a former IILJ visiting doctoral researcher now at the University of the Andes in Bogotá, indicators can even be radical. He mentioned a case in which paramilitary groups attempted to kill an activist who was citing indicators in his anti-government arguments. Indicators, he said, were not just an activist tool, but activism in themselves.

Focusing on her extensive work in Haiti, Professor Margaret Satterthwaite ’99 described how indicators are used in managing post-earthquake reconstruction there, referring to two sets of indicators used by professional humanitarians to improve quality, effectiveness, and accountability in their disaster responses while adhering to human rights standards.

Ryan Goodman, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law, formulated proposals and questions as the discussant in response to the speakers. Encouraging attendees to pursue further scholarship about indicators, Kingsbury concluded with an acknowledgment of the unexplored nature of this academic terrain: “There are many more fundamental problems about the production and use of indicators...than there are people working on them.”


Watch the conference's first panel, "Indicators as a Social Phenomenon: Framing the Study" (40 min):


Watch the conference's final panel, "Use of Indicators to Define Concepts and Measure Compliance: Case Studies of State Effectiveness, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Assistance" (2 hr): 

Posted on September 22, 2010