Measuring Human Rights (7): Don’t Let Governments Make it Easy on Themselves

In many cases, the task of measuring respect for human rights in a country falls on the government of that country. It’s obvious that this isn’t a good idea in dictatorships: governments there will not present correct statistics on their own misbehavior. But if not the government, who else? Dictatorships aren’t known for their thriving and free civil societies, or for granting access to outside monitors. As a result, human rights protection can’t be measured.

The problem, however, of depending on governments for human rights measurement isn’t limited to dictatorships. I also gave examples of democratic governments not doing a good job in this respect. Governments, also democratic ones, tend to choose indicators they already have. For example, number of people benefiting from government food programs (they have numbers for that), neglecting private food programs for which information isn’t readily available. In this case, but in many other cases as well, governments choose indicators which are easy to measure, rather than indicators which measure what needs to be measured but which require a lot of effort and money.

Human rights measurement also fails to measure what needs to be measured when the people whose rights we want to measure don’t have a say on which indicators are best. And that happens a lot, even in democracies. Citizen participation is a messy thing and governments tend to want to avoid it, but the result may be that we’re measuring the wrong thing. For example, we think we are measuring poverty when we count the number of internet connections for disadvantaged groups, but these groups may consider the lack of cable TV or public transportation a much more serious deprivation. The reason we’re not measuring what we think we are measuring, or what we really need to measure, is not – as in the previous case – complacency, lack of budgets etc. The reason is a lack of consultation. Because there hasn’t been consultation, the definition of “poverty” used by those measuring human rights is completely different from the one used by those whose rights are to be measured. And, as a result, the indicators that have been chosen aren’t the correct ones, or they don’t show the whole picture. Many indicators chosen by governments are also too specific, measuring only part of the human right (e.g. free meals for the elderly instead of poverty levels for the elderly).

However, even if the indicators that are chosen are the correct ones – i.e. indicators that measure what needs to be measured, completely and not partially – it’s still the case that human rights measurement is extremely difficult, not only conceptually, but also and primarily on the level of execution. Not only are there many indicators to measure, but the data sources are scarce and often unreliable, even in developed countries. For example, let’s assume that we want to measure the human right not to suffer poverty, and that we agree that the best and only indicator to measure respect for this right is the level of income.* So we cleared up the conceptual difficulties. The problem now is data sources. Do you use tax data (taxable income)? We all know that there is tax fraud. Low income declared in tax returns may not reflect real poverty. Tax returns also don’t include welfare benefits etc.

Even if you manage to produce neat tables and graphs you always have to stop and think about the messy ways in which they have been produced, about the flaws and lack of completeness of the chosen indicators themselves, and about the problems encountered while gathering the data. Human rights measurement will always be a difficult thing to do, even under the best circumstances.

* This isn’t obvious. Other indicators could be level of consumption, income inequality etc. But let’s assume, for the sake of simplicity, that level of income is the best and only indicator for this right.


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