52 Current Anthropology (2011)

Measuring the World: Indicators, Human Rights, and Global Governance

Sally Engle Merry

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Indicators are rapidly multiplying as tools for assessing and promoting a variety of social justice and reform strategies around the world. There are indicators of rule of law, indicators of violence against women, and indicators of economic development, among many others. Indicators are widely used at the national level and are increasingly important in global governance. There are increasing demands for “evidence-based” funding for nongovernmental organizations and for the results of civil society organizations to be quantifiable and measurable. The reliance on simplified numerical representations of complex phenomena began in strategies of national governance and economic analysis and has recently migrated to the regulation of nongovernmental organizations and human rights. The turn to indicators in the field of global governance introduces a new form of knowledge production with implications for relations of power between rich and poor nations and between governments and civil society. The deployment of statistical measures tends to replace political debate with technical expertise. The growing reliance on indicators provides an example of the dissemination of the corporate form of thinking and governance into broader social spheres.