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Remedial Capacity Indicators

Versus Performance Indicators

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Paper prepared for a meeting on social indicators of the Goals, Processes and Indicators of Development (GPID) project of the United Nations University (Warsaw, December 1981). Published in: Insights into Maldevelopment: reconsidering the idea of progress (Edited by Jan Danecki in cooperation with Jerzy Krycki and Danuta Markowska). Warsaw, University of Warsaw, 1993. Also published in Polish under the title: Wskazniki zdolsnosci naprawcej in Jana Daneckiego and Marii Daneckiej (Ed). U Podloza Globalnych Zagrozen: Dylematy rozwoju (Instytut Politiyki Spolecnej, Uniwersytetu Warswawkiego, 2003, pp. 62-68).


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 inadequate .

Performance Indicators

 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.

Remedial Capacity Indicators

 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.

Sharpening Public Debate

 .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.

Highlighting Action Substitutes

 Remedial capacity indicators could help to highlight initiatives which are in fact substitutes for remedial action. Examples are:

Range of Remedia1 Capacity Indicators

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)

Non-linear Development

 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 possibilities.

Integrating Indicator Sets

 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:

  1. Innovative capacity, namely the change initiating capacity
  2. Intensification capacity, namely the capacity to arouse (creative) disagreement concerning the nature of any remedial action
  3. Mediative capacity, namely the transformation of disagreements into a motive force
  4. Learning capacity, namely the ability to respond to feedback in order to improve the quality of the action
  5. Concretizing capacity, namely the ability to give practical form to the intended innovation
  6. Sustaining capacity, namely the ability to ensure continuity of action
  7. Diversity interrelationship capacity, namely the ability to promote the innovation through a variety of modes of action, each appropriate to different conditions
  8. Constraint handling capacity, namely the ability to work with and use constraints
  9. Implementation capacity, namely the ability to complete the various phases of a transformation cycle
  10. Programme maintenance capacity, namely the ability to continue the routine effort required by a long-term programme
  11. Importance handling capacity, namely the ability to handle the processes which are engendered once an innovation programme acquires recognized importance in a society
  12. Adaptive capacity, namely the ability to integrate the innovative programme into the range of other programmes and processes in society
  13. Renewal capacity, namely the ability to handle the eventual disintegration of the programme and to bring about any necessary renewal.

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.

Controlling Performance Misinterpretation

 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.


  1. UN Secretary General, Review and Appraisal of the 'Dissemination of Information and Mobilization of Public Opinion Relative to Problems of Development', E/5358, 21 May 1973.
  2. The problem of society's delayed, minimalistic, token response to major disasters is well illustrated by the Ethiopian food crisis of 1984/1985 and the ambiguous attitudes aroused by daily television coverage of death and suffering on a scale equivalent to that of Nazi concentration camps. One might debate the correspondences between the Nazi past responsibility for physical violence in the camps and the world community's current responsibility for structural violence in Ethiopia. The question is how to provide indicators of society's inertia in responding to crises, even to those which are expected to result in many further deaths in the near future. It is the inertia which is the key, not the availability of food reserves.
  3. Anthony Judge. Development through alternation, Brussels: Union of International Associations, 1983 (Revised version of a paper for the 7th Network Meeting of the Goais, Processes and Indicators of Development project of the United Nations University, Colombo, 1982). [text]
  4. Anthony Judge. Beyond method; engaging opposition in psycho-social organization (Paper for a methodology meeting of the Goals, Processes and Indicators of Development project of the United Nations University, Bucharest, 1981). [text]
  5. Anthony Judge. Patterns of N-foldness; comparison of integrated multiset concept schemes as forms of presentation (Paper for a meeting on forms of presentation of the Goals, Processes and Indicators of Development project of the United Nations University, 1980). [text]
  6. Some hundred concepts of human development which people consider meaningful are presented in Union of International Associations, Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential, K. G. Saur Verlag, 1990, 2 vols. It includes concepts legitimized by the psychological and psychoanalytical establishments as well as promoted by various contemporary movements and coming from religions and belief systems of different cultures. 

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