Historical Social Research

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Daniel Speich Chassé: The Roots of the Millennium Development Goals: A Framework for Studying the History of Global Statistics [Abstract]

Global comparative statistics have become a major mode of international political communication. One prominent case in point is the Millennium Development Goals as defined by the United Nations in 2000. The article contributes to a critical discussion of their functioning by designing a framework for the study of global statistics. Historians of statistics have so far largely focused on the national level and posited a strong connection between calculating social instances and governing collectives. The category of the nation was one of the foremost effects of statistics, and numbers have helped in strengthening national institutions. But what about the international realm in which the Millennium Development Goals are located? The leading question of this article is to what extent a co-construction of statistics and political institutions can also be found in the analysis of global statistics. The focus lies on statistical practices in East Africa in the epoch of late imperial rule and during decolonization. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is of special interest. Statistical knowledge was surprisingly incomplete and became a major issue only with the formation of new states and new international organizations post-1945. Statistical knowledge as represented in the Millennium Development Goals works through a radical reduction of complexity and necessarily renders a biased image of the world. In contrast to the national level, on the international level no single center of calculation emerged with the growing power of statistics.

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