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The purpose of this note is to draw further attention to a certain futility associated with the production of new social indicators as they are currently conceived.
This is not an attempt to argue against the production of such information. For, as with 'motherhood', few can argue satisfactorily against the value of obtaining further 'facts'. The difficulty is that the accumulation of data on what is unsatisfactory appears to be accompanied by a reluctance to recognize or respond to such information. This can be called 'indicator overload'. The accumulation of indicators of maldevelopment thus contributes to some degree to a build up of resistance to initiating new action on the basis of such data. Even 20 years ago it was noted that:
... it is difficult to escape the conclusion that, in spite of governmental efforts and similar programmes by nongovernmental organizations, the state of public opinion on matters of development, particularly in the industrialized countries, is generally less favourable than it has been in the past.... It would probably be unfair to conclude that a sudden callousness had overcome public opinion in the developed countries. It is more like a closing of the gates to a pattern of generalizations perceived as out-worn by over-use (1)
As has been pointed out on many occasions, there is no lack of information on the inadequate quality of life in many sectors of society in most countries. Indicators have been designed to give legitimacy to such information and to portray developments over a period of time. The problem seems to be that it is very easy for authorities to ignore published indicators and particularly non-economic indicators. Indicators easily become a tool of lively debates which are only remotely connected with actual decision-making processes.
As has been frequently remarked, governments are experiencing increasing difficulties in managing societies within the present constraints - which are already forcing the simplification of many issues. Formulating new indicators of the inadequacy of conditions in society is then of somewhat limited value.
This note is therefore concerned with the need to take into account the
incapacity to act anainst maldevelopment even when appropriate indicators are available.
Consider the following extreme examples, which have been used to some extent in press releases. Supposing indicators were available for the coming month or decade on the number of people in each country who will probably:
What use is such information to decision-making bodies? In present circumstances it would either be ignored, since most facilities and budgets are over-loaded, or result in minor adaptation in token response to deflect possible criticism. It may even be asked what effect there would be on what actors if it were known that there was a high probability that 6 million people would be killed by earthquake in a particular region in a coming period. Neither people nor institutions have much capacity with which to respond to such information.
As a further example, starvation is not a significant problem in many LDCs. It is
merely a fact of life for those living there, to which no new response has been possible.
Most people in industrialized countries also perceive starvation in LDCs (if they ever
think about it) as a fact of life to which no new response seems possible (2). Mass
support for emergency relief can only be sustained whilst the problem remains a 9-day
media wonder offering people the possibility of tranquilizing their consciences. Most of
these problems are long-term problems for which such cosmetic solutions are totally
Indicators of (comparative) degree of maldevelopment or of maldevelopment trends therefore clarify the situation as to how bad things are and how much worse they are likely to get. Such indicators could be called 'performance indicators'. They offer a description of what is (not) happening.
From a purely academic point of view, or even as a delaying tactic in politics, it is always possible to call for the generation of more information of this type. Studies of this kind of 'hard data' offer every opportunity for methodological refinement and analytical precision.
In a normal management or military environment such indicators would be quite
adequate as a stimulus for remedial action. They would constitute important warnings
calling for rapid response. But such an attitude to indicators is only possible when the
number is limited and the interaction between the conditions they signify is relatively
limited. In fact in such environments care is taken to reduce the number of indicators to
a manageable number. Any others are ignored as of marginal relevance.
In the complexity of modern society, a key question is the capacity of that society to respond to indicators, or to information on the N+1-th indicator. This would seem to suggest the need for a new set of indicators concerning:
These might be termed 'remedial capacity indicators' or 'remedial potential indicators'. The reciprocal of a remedial capacity indicator might more forcefully be called an 'impotence indicator'. Such indicators would indicate by country the capacity for recognizing a problem (implicit in a performance indicator) and initiating effective remedial action.
In the example given above, particularly with regard to starvation in LDCs, the relevant remedial capacity indicators would be 'low'. This would make it clear that however great the starvation, and however much information was available on it, it is improbable that much of non-cosmetic significance will be done about it at this time. There is no information in performance indicators which reveals whether the problems they describe are capable of being comprehended, let alone acted upon. It may be argued that changes in a particular indicator reveal whether action has been taken in response to the problem-thus highlighting the 'remedial capacity'. But clearly such changes may be due to other factors and not to remedial action deliberately taken. On the other hand, if the remedial capacity indicators were 'high', in the above example, a country would not need a large amount of information to justify action.
This highlights one problem with performance indicators, namely that the impulse for designing them usually comes in response to pressure on bodies that are incapable of acting on the information anyway. Maintaining indicators thus becomes a substitute for action, since such bodies can always claim that more information. or better indicators, are required before any action can be justified.
Such indicators would suggest the value of focusing on why a long series of similar
statements on such problems in the past has been of limited value. The focus could then
become how to improve remedial capacity rather than naively assuming, once again, that
this is adequate to the problem on which the debate would otherwise focus with a great
deal of self-satisfaction. It could certainly be argued that such a shift in focus would
be of great value to the disarmament debate which persists in wallowing in armaments
statistics rather than basing new initiatives on statistics concerning, for example, the
number of 'fruitless' disarmament meetings (apparently in excess of 5,000 since
1945). Impotence indicators would decrease the significance of such meetings in their own
right and direct attention to more fruitful avenues whereby this impotence could be
by-passed in such meetings.
.A useful consequence of generating 'impotence indicators' would be to
sharpen the nature of public statements. It would counteract the tendency in public debate
for statements to centre on past and expected performance (e.g. with respect to food
supply, overkill capacity pollution, etc.). At present such statements are considered to
be highly significant and may even be considered a highly satisfactory outcome of an
international meeting. If however the 'impotence indicators' indicate a
well-established inability to respond to the problem (e.g. disarmament]. this would
suggest that such statements are of rather limited significance.
Remedial capacity indicators could help to highlight initiatives which are in fact substitutes for remedial action. Examples are:
The kinds of indicators needed for societies could perhaps be grouped as follows:
Such capacities may be associated with the 'learning capacity' of a society.
They suggest a basic distinction between remedial capacity indicators and performance
indicators. The latter, in the Club of Rome terms, are concerned with societal maintenance
or adaptive learning (reformism), whereas the former are concerned with innovative or
shock learning (transformation)
Built into the use of performance indicators is a linear bias which tends to imply that a higher (or lower) value of the indicator is better (or worse) as the case may be. In this sense performance indicators are used as simple 'signposts' to the 'good life'. Development does not necessarily proceed in such a linear fashion. It may prove to be the case that performance indicators go 'down' (indicating mar-development, say) to permit a necessary phase of re-organization prior to further advance. This point is explored in a separate paper (3). It may be that a lower growth rate, for example, is conducive to better quality development. In some cases a 'catastrophe', in the sense of catastrophe theory, may be a necessary preliminary to the transformation by which a better quality of life may be achieved. There is also the possibility that a satisfactory performance according to indicators may disguise the increasing vulnerability of a society to a catastrophe into an even more mar-developed condition.
Remedial capacity indicators should be sensitive to such non-linear
An interesting characteristic of the use of performance indicators is that they tend to be cited in isolation. This makes it very difficult to grasp problems which shift their domain of manifestation from one sector to another. Thus an economic problem may apparently be 'solved' in one country, only because it now takes a social form. Each such form would be covered by a different indicator, whereas the problem may 'migrate' between several such sectors manifesting only in the one which is currently the weakest. Clearly there is a need to work with sets of indicators and this is especially true with remedial capacity indicators. The question then calling for further research is what types of indicators are required and what type of integrated set do they need to constitute. As a step in exploring this possibility, an exercise was conducted in a separate paper to interrelate sets of 'operators' significant to the development process (4). Each such operator could be made the basis for a capacity indicator. A basic point made in formulating such sets was that operators in a set should be complementary but logically incompatible or incommensurable. This was done as a way of internalizing within the set the disagreement to which any set gives rise.
In that paper the operators correspond to different levels of operation or different types of resource management problem. In general it would seem that the later sets in the series correspond to more precisely defined integrated operations, whereas the earlier ones correspond to more general aptitudes and skills required to control the more integrated operations. The sets were elaborated on the basis of a number of fundamental sets derived from a cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary exploration (5). The number of elements in each set is low for the more general sets and progressively higher for the more specific sets. Of the 20 sets studied, the first 13 could be identified as follows, appropriately adapted in remedial capacity terms:
This approach clearly calls for much further work, but the 210 set elements elaborated
in the earlier paper offer an interesting line of investigation. It should be noted that
in that paper the aim was not only to interrelate the elements of each set, but also to
interrelate the sets so as to contain conceptually the development process.
A difficulty with performance indicators is the ease with which they can be misinterpreted, even when grouped into sets. One aspect of this is the problem of detecting missing dimensions or hidden limitations. It may be asked, for example, what aspects of human development get lost in the different interpretations of 'human development' by WHO, ILO, UNESCO and the UNDP (6). For this reason it is useful to test sets of performance indicators against 'societies' of different types which have well-known deficiencies in order to determine whether these can be detected by any set of indicators. Types of societies, which might be used for 'thought experiments') to test such indicators, could include in decreasing order of maldevelopment:
The question is to what extent performance indicators warn against the emergence of a 'factory-farm' society along the style of 'Brave New World'. To what extent do performance indicators distinguish such extreme cases from contemporary societies? Does the use of remedial capacity indicators clarify the extent to which each such society can ameliorate its own condition? From such investigations may emerge a more adequate definition of maldevelopment based not on (temporary) falls in performance indicators, but rather on the (long-term) impotence signalled by low indicators of remedial capacity.
this work is licenced under a creative commons licence.