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The politics of numbers: the normative agendas of global benchmarking

Abstract
Abstract

Global benchmarks have grown exponentially over the last two decades, having been both applied to and developed by states, international organisations, corporations, and non-governmental organisations. As a consequence, global benchmarking is now firmly established as a distinct mode of transnational governance. Benchmarking chiefly involves the development of comparative metrics of performance, which typically take the form of highly stylised comparisons which are generated by translating complex phenomena into numerical values via simplification and extrapolation, commensuration, reification, and symbolic judgements. This process of translation takes what might otherwise be highly contentious normative agendas and converts them into formats that gain credibility through rhetorical claims to neutral and technocratic assessment. This politics of numbers has far-reaching ramifications for transnational governance, including the dimensions and effects of indirect power, expertise and agenda-setting, coordination, regulation and certification, and norm contestation and activism. This Special Issue draws upon an emerging literature to explore how and why benchmarks both align with and expand upon established models of International Relations theory and scholarship. It does so by critically examining the role of global benchmarks in key areas such as state ‘failure’, global supply chains, disaster management, economic governance, corporate social responsibility, and human development.

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As editors of this Special Issue, we are grateful for feedback on earlier versions of all of the articles from participants at the ‘Benchmarking in Global Governance’ Research Workshop, University of Warwick, 12–14 March 2014. We are also grateful for financial support from GR:EEN, European Commission Project Number: 266809, the Global Research Priority in Global Governance, the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick, and a Warwick International Partnership Award with the University of the Witwatersrand on ‘Benchmarking in Global Governance’.

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1 ‘35.8 Million People are Enslaved Across the World’, Global Slavery Index (5 November 2014), available at: {http://www.globalslaveryindex.org/35-8-million-people-are-enslaved-across-the-world/} accessed 29 July 2015.

2 Guth Andrew, Anderson Robyn, Kinnard Kasey, and Tran Hang, ‘Proper methodology and methods of collecting and analyzing slavery data: an examination of the Global Slavery Index’, Social Inclusion, 2:4 (2014), pp. 1422; Weitzer Ronald, ‘Miscounting human trafficking and slavery’, openDemocracy, available at: {https://www.opendemocracy.net/beyondslavery/ronald-weitzer/miscounting-human-trafficking-and-slavery}; Howard Neil, ‘Keeping Count: The Trouble with the Global Slavery Index’, The Guardian (13 January 2014), available at: {http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2014/jan/13/slavery-global-index-reports} accessed 29 July 2015.

3 Gallagher Anne, ‘The Global Slavery Index is Based on Flawed Data – Why Does No One Say So?’, The Guardian (28 November 2014), available at: {http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2014/nov/28/global-slavery-index-walk-free-human-trafficking-anne-gallagher} accessed 29 July 2015.

4 See, for example, Fukuda-Parr Sakiko, ‘Millennium development Goal 8: Indicators for international human rights obligations?’, Human Rights Quarterly, 28:4 (2006), pp. 966967; Fougner Tore, ‘Neoliberal governance of states: the role of competitiveness indexing and country benchmarking’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 37:2 (2008), pp. 303326; Larmour Peter, ‘Civilizing techniques: Transparency international and the spread of anti-corruption’, in Brett Bowden and Leonard Seabrooke (eds), Global Standards of Market Civilization (Abingdon: Routledge, 2006), pp. 95106; Langbein Laura and Knack Stephen, ‘The worldwide governance indicators: Six, one, or none?’, Journal of Development Studies, 46:2 (2010), pp. 350370; Bhuta Nehal, ‘Governmentalizing sovereignty: Indexes of state fragility and the calculability of political order’, in Kevin E. Davis, Angelina Fisher, Benedict Kingsbury, and Sally Engle Merry (eds), Governance by Indicators: Global Power through Quantification (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 132162.

5 See Broome André and Quirk Joel, ‘Governing the world at a distance: the practice of global benchmarking’, Review of International Studies, 41:5 (2015), pp. 819841.

6 Fioramonti Lorenzo, How Numbers Rule the World: The Use and Abuse of Statistics in Global Politics (London: Zed Books, 2014), p. 192.

7 For a full explanation of these concepts, see Broome and Quirk, ‘Governing the world at a distance’.

8 Andreas Peter and Greenhill Kelly M., ‘Introduction: the politics of numbers’, in Peter Andreas and Kelly M. Greenhill (eds), Sex, Drugs, and Body Counts: The Politics of Numbers in Global Crime and Conflict (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010), p. 17; see also Broome André and Seabrooke Leonard, ‘Seeing like an international organisation’, New Political Economy, 17:1 (2012), pp. 116.

9 See Seabrooke Leonard, ‘Epistemic arbitrage: Transnational professional knowledge in action’, Journal of Professions and Organizations, 1:1 (2014), pp. 4964; Sending Ole Jacob, The Politics of Expertise: Competing for Authority in Global Governance (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015).

10 See Suzuki Shogo, Civilization and Empire: China and Japan’s Encounter with European International Society (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009).

11 See Broome and Seabrooke, ‘Seeing like an international organisation’.

12 Using this typology, we have compiled a Global Benchmarking Database consisting of 205 benchmarks (as of June 2015), which is available at: {www.warwick.ac.uk/globalbenchmarking/database}.

* As editors of this Special Issue, we are grateful for feedback on earlier versions of all of the articles from participants at the ‘Benchmarking in Global Governance’ Research Workshop, University of Warwick, 12–14 March 2014. We are also grateful for financial support from GR:EEN, European Commission Project Number: 266809, the Global Research Priority in Global Governance, the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick, and a Warwick International Partnership Award with the University of the Witwatersrand on ‘Benchmarking in Global Governance’.

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Review of International Studies
  • ISSN: 0260-2105
  • EISSN: 1469-9044
  • URL: /core/journals/review-of-international-studies
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