A word that counts? The promise and pitfall of ruling the world by numbers

A blogpost by

A blogpost by Morten Jerven (University of Edinburgh)

This blog post is based on a talk at the SKAPE seminar on 2 May 2018

Perhaps one of the most challenging notion to take on board in the governance of today’s world is that not all that counts can be counted. We increasingly rely on numbers as shortcuts to information about the world that we do not have time to digest.

Unfortunately, we are being led down the wrong path by the United Nations and its experts. In 2014, the U.N. High-Level Panel delivered its report with recommendations for the Sustainable Development Goals, subsequently to be adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 2015. One small aspect of the report very soon caught everyone’s attention. Buried on page 8 was a call for a “data revolution” in development. It generated a frenzy of enthusiasm among the international development community.

Later the same year the secretary-general’s Independent Expert Advisory Group on a Data Revolution for Sustainable Development put forward its recommendation, titled “A world that counts.” The report laid out a grand ambition: It recognized that currently “whole groups of people are not being counted and important aspects of people’s lives and environmental conditions are still not measured.”

From that acknowledgement it took a surprising next step. From now onwards, the report declared, “Never again should it be possible to say, ‘We didn’t know.’ No one should be invisible. This is the world we want — a world that counts.”

The name of the game is governance “as if” the world counts. It might be a smart shortcut sometimes, but we are in deep trouble if we forget that we are doing it “as if” the world counts. Leadership should take making good decisions seriously. If the method by which we get knowledge and the method by which we make decisions is limited to what can be numbered, we are setting up a system of governance that’s systematically getting stuff that actually counts wrong.

Arguably, the most important things in this world are the things that we cannot count. The most marginalized issues are those issues that, willfully or not, remain and will remain uncounted. That should be first principle when it comes to making plans for global governance. Yet, on expert advice, the U.N. did exactly the opposite. In the year 2000 the world adopted the eight Millennium Development Goals, 18 targets and 60 indicators, and this year, intoxicated on what the establishment perceived as a ringing success, laid down the path for the next 15 years with 17 goals, 169 targets and so far 269 suggested indicators.