Indicators as a Technology of Global Governance


  • Kevin E. Davis,

  • Benedict Kingsbury,

  • Sally Engle Merry

  • The authors acknowledge with thanks National Science Foundation grants #SES-0921368 and #SES-023717, the latter to support a multicountry collaborative project focused on indicators in developing and transitional countries. Many helpful suggestions were made by Angelina Fisher and the other members of that group, Amanda Perry-Kessaris, and participants in sessions at annual meetings of the American Society of International Law and the Law and Society Association and in workshops at NYU, Emory, Toronto, and ASU Law Schools. The authors are grateful also for research assistance by Maxwell Kardon and Jessica Shimmin, and for generous financial support for related work from Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Straus Institute for the Advanced Study of Law and Justice at NYU, NYU Law School's D'Agostino and Greenberg Faculty Research Fund, and the Rockefeller Foundation. Please address correspondence to Kevin E. Davis, Beller Family Professor of Business Law, New York University School of Law, 40 Washington Square South, Room 335, New York, NY 10012; e-mail:; Benedict Kingsbury, Murry and Ida Becker Professor of Law, New York University School of Law, 40 Washington Square South, Room 314D, New York, NY 10012; e-mail:; or Sally Merry, Professor of Anthropology (Institute for Law and Society), Faculty of Arts and Science, New York University, 40 Washington Square South, Room 409B, New York, NY 10012; e-mail:


The use of indicators is a prominent feature of contemporary global governance. Indicators are used to compare and rank states for purposes as varied as deciding how to allocate foreign aid or investment and determining whether states have complied with their treaty obligations. This article defines the concept of an indicator, analyzes distinctive features of indicators as technologies of governance, and identifies various ways in which the use of indicators has the potential to alter the topology and dynamics of global governance. Particular attention is paid to how indicators can affect processes of standard setting, decisionmaking, and contestation in global governance. The World Bank Doing Business indicators and the United Nations Human Development Index are analyzed as case studies.