Measuring development - How science and politics work together
An international conference on "measuring development" will be organized at UNESCO Headquarters from 1 to 3 February 2012. Opened by Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s Director-General, several workshop, two plenary sessions and a final round table will offer a unique occasion to question the relevance of indicators used in today’s world to measure economic performance and social progress.
While the media constantly provide public opinion with data that help policy makers make decision in the area of development, internationally renowned researchers and economists will debate at UNESCO on the relevance of measuring development around five questions:
- How are figures and indicators produced? (technical challenges)
- Who produces these figures and indicators? (political challenges)
- Figures and scientific truth (epistemological and theoretical challenges)
- Access to statistical information (dissemination challenges)
- Measurement as an instrument of power (power challenges)
In the current climate, marked by the increase in inequalities in the countries of the North and by rapid change in certain countries of the South, the age-old question of measuring development has taken a new form. These changes lead us to review both statistical concepts and measuring tools. More often than not, these have been the subject of technical and intellectual exportation from the countries of the North, where they were designed and used, towards developing countries. Export in the opposite direction is far scarcer.
Henceforth, in studying the processes of development, researchers and experts have the choice of a range of quantitative tools which can renew the methods of measuring these processes. An abundance of information backed up by figures, which also concerns the qualitative aspects, is apparently increasingly accessible thanks to ICT. In reality, the specific terms of access to these data (confidentiality, fees) and the differentiated conditions between the North and the South (digital discrepancy) should be examined.
However, beyond this issue of access, the question of legitimacy of the broadly disseminated data and indicators is more important than ever. These data and indicators provided by the various producers of information are too often given an almost magical aura and are used without caution in social and political debate.
In many cases, we could point to an intellectual and scientific coup de force when the general public is overwhelmed by measurements. The abundance of these measurements often hides the absence of a strict definition of the object. The issue of the relevance of these different indicators used to measure and identify economic and social development is therefore raised. These indicators also increasingly serve to legitimise types of intervention and operating modes of aid and policies of development.
While the debates on the measurement of economic performance and social progress more often than not adopt a technical stance, this technicality must not mask the challenges linked to measurement. The orientation and content of these measurements are not neutral. Their political, ideological and social dimensions are essential. The universalism of the measuring methods, the comparability of data and the interrelation of analytical and statistical concepts must be examined with regard to the specificities of the countries and regions.
These considerations will be at the heart of the proposed dialogue and discussions focusing on a number of major questions.