Thursday, October 25, 2007

Rory Stewart and measurement

This is Rory Stewart, author of two of the more interesting books I've read recently, The Places In Between and Occupational Hazards.

Stewart has had an interesting life, in the Confucian sense. TPIB is about his walk across 800km of central Afghanistan in early 2002 (um, yes, mountainous territory, winter, walking. On his feet - what a nutter - admirable, but a nutter). He took five weeks covering between 20 and 30 km a day. The book is fascinating for his encounters with Afghans, for the sights he sees and the big picture, the awareness he has of history, not just immediate history, but also the long-distant past where great empires and kingdoms flourished and now are looted lacunae in our records. Ozymandias in action.

His second book, Occupational Hazards is more immediate and even sadder: it details the months he spent as a representative of the Coalition Authority prior to the handover of power to Iraqis in two provinces, Maysan and Dhi Qar. It is a fascinating account of the frustrations, obstacles and attacks endured by Coalition officials and their genuine attempts to impose order, develop economies and encourage the rule of law in parts of Iraq.

One of the points Stewart makes that struck me most was the following: "the policy debate on Iraq remains obsessed with measurement and is expressed in words, which are as strident as the numbers are pedantic and as meaningless."

This leapt out at me, because I think that the bean-counters have taken over the asylum, not just in Iraq but in so many areas of political policy. And their defence against discovering that they are in the asylum is to count all the more frenziedly. I was talking with colleagues about performance targets in UK schools, where students who achieved the top grade of an A* at GCSE were identified as -1 in terms of the "value-added" measures applied to the school...There is no getting your head round that one, don't even bother.

Personally, I enjoy statistics, I've always quite enjoyed them since I trained up as a journalist in my early 20s, largely because I was guided by an economist who understood when the numbers were being played with and could explain the techniques used to obfuscate, obscure and confuse. So my sceptic's instinct is usually roused whenever people produce graphs and charts and rankings. Stewart highlights the nonsense when he comments on the way UN and World Bank and Pentagon statistics and data have been processed to produce "a global comparative index on civil and political rights". It's a mix of all sorts of information, from how many newspapers a regime has closed to levels of police brutality. But I don't need the comparative index to tell me that conditions in Burma and Zimbabwe are shit, whereas conditions in Chavez's Venezuela are not too shit, but the signs are getting a little ominous. And the comparative index is perhaps an interesting way to defuse the moral twinges in the corporate world about doing business with a dodgy regime - "well, their rating is only 120, that's not sooooo bad." Actually, I am not too sure that the multi-nationals which make their living out of doing business with dodgy regimes are capable of moral twinges. I can quite easily imagine a completely fish-eyed response from most board-room directors when asked if they have experienced a moral twinge about the deals they've cut. It's only when shareholders and NGOs make a crisis out of a deal that the moral twinges manifest themselves.

We use our data (we sophisticated westerners) to shield ourselves from the necessity of confronting the consequences of our decision-making. Making decisions whether it is about the health service or education or Iraq or NATO in Afghanistan involves moral choices because the decisions have, eventually, a direct impact on the lives of other humans. But that is perhaps too raw a reality for our politicians and bureaucrats to deal with. Measuring is easier, tidier, cleaner, neater. Decisions based on measurements require less coherent defence - you just point at the bean-counters and say, "well, that's what they came up with as a baseline indicator" or some such equivalent hooey.

I like measurements - I've just found out my son is 155 cm tall and 51k in weight, in the 98th percentile for his age range - and I'm glad that Galileo worked out what a second was, but I don't like being in thrall to measurements, which is where we are headed. We spend so much time measuring and counting that we forget to look at each other as individuals, as humans. A point that Stewart never forgets, in the midst of spending millions for the reconstruction of Iraq.

1 comment:

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