Rockefeller Foundation 2011

Indicators as Interventions: Pitfalls and Prospects in Supporting Development Initiatives

A report prepared with support from the Rockefeller Foundation

Kevin E. Davis and Benedict Kingsbury

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Indicators are ubiquitous in development policy. Corruption. Human trafficking. Obstacles to doing business. Child mortality and morbidity. There are indicators for all of these social problems. These indicators are not only methods of selecting, evaluating or publicizing development interventions – they are interventions in their own right!

Indicators have potential to be constructive interventions in addressing wicked or even super-wicked problems of development. Wicked problems have several characteristics which make them challenging, but which the use of indicators may help (somewhat) in addressing. Wicked problems are difficult to understand in single standard categories – for example, state failure is variously addressed by external agencies as a development problem or a security problem, and local people may see it in other ways. Wicked problems are complex: they typically have many causes, and potential responses often involve a myriad of different actors. Moreover, these problems take different forms in different places, making each version of the problem somewhat unique. The diverse actors whose efforts are needed to fruitfully address a wicked problem do not see the problem the same way or with the same parameters; most may identify with only some aspects; each may pursue wider ideals or agendas that unwittingly pull away from constructive solutions; they may hold collectively incompatible views due to responding to different questions; they may not see themselves as engaged in any way in the same problem as some of the other relevant actors. Well-crafted indicators, carefully deployed, may help to overcome some of these challenges. Conversely, indicators that are poorly crafted or used with insufficient consideration may exacerbate the difficulties.

Drawing on three case studies and a review of the literature, this report provides a framework for understanding the effects of producing indicators in global governance and transnational contexts relevant to development, drawing attention to some pitfalls and perverse effects that can easily result from producing and using indicators without realizing that they are themselves interventions, or without sufficiently far-reaching thought and consultations.