Measuring Human Rights (33): Measuring Racial Discrimination

The measurement of racial discrimination may seem like a purely technical topic, but in reality it comes with a huge moral dilemma. In order to measure racial discrimination, you have to categorize people into different racial groups (usually in your national census). On the basis of this you can then collect social information about those groups, and compare the average outcomes in order to detect large discrepancies between them. For example, do blacks in the US earn less, achieve less in school etc. Only then can you assume that there may be racism or discrimination and can you design policies that deal with it.

Now, categorizing people into different racial groups is not straightforward. You need to do violence to reality. Racial classifications and categorizations are not simply a reflection of factual reality, of “real group identities”. Instead they are social constructions or even fantasies influenced by centuries of prejudice, stereotypes and power relations. If we want to use racial classifications to measure discrimination, then we give people labels that may have little or nothing to do with who or what they are and how they identify themselves. Instead, these labels perpetuate the stereotypes and power relations that were the basis of the racial classifications when they were first conceived centuries ago. For example, “black” or “African-American” is not a simple descriptive label of a well-defined and existing group of people; instead it’s an ideological construction that was once used to segregate certain groups of very different people and subordinate them to a lower station in life. (Evidence for the claim that race is a social construct rather than a natural fact can be found in biology and in the fact that racial classifications differ wildly from one country to another).

In other words, the “statistical representation of diversity is a complex process which reveals the foundations of societies and their political choices” (source). In this particular case, the foundation of society was racism and the political choices were segregation and discrimination. If today we use the same racial and ethnic classifications that were once used to justify segregation and discrimination, then we run the risk of perpetuating racist social constructions. As a result, we may also help to perpetuate stereotypes and discrimination, even as we try to go in the opposite direction. It’s a form of path dependence.

Statistics are not just a reflection of social reality, but also affect this reality. Statistical categories are supposed to describe social groups, but at the same time they may influence people’s attitudes towards those groups because they contain memories of older judgments that were once attached to those groups. The dilemma is the following: the use of racial classifications to measure discrimination means giving people labels that have little or nothing to do with who they are or what they are; but they have something to do with how others treat them. It’s this treatment that we want to measure, and we can’t do so without the use of classifications. Using such classifications, however, can help to perpetuate the treatment we want to measure and avoid.

More posts in this series are here.

Measuring Human Rights (32): Assessing Advocacy and Policy by Way of Counterfactual Thinking

Human rights measurement is ultimately about levels of respect for human rights, but it can also be useful to try to measure the impact of human rights advocacy and policy on these levels. Both advocacy and policy (the difference being that the former is non-governmental) aim at improving levels of respect for human rights. Obviously, those levels don’t depend solely on advocacy or policy, but it’s reasonably to assume that they are to some extent dependent on those types of action. It’s hard – although not impossible – to imagine that millions of people and dozens of governments and international institutions would engage in pointless activity.

The question is then: to what extent exactly? How much do advocacy and policy help? The problem in answering this question is that we won’t necessarily learn a lot by simply looking at the levels and how they evolve. Not only is there the difficulty of comparing different possible causes; a flat trend line – or even a declining trend line – may cover up how much more awful things would have been without advocacy and policy. Levels of respect may very well stay as they are or even worsen while advocacy and policy are relatively successful because the levels without advocacy and policy would have been even lower.

Of course, it’s very hard to quantify this. If there’s improvement, you can at least try to sort out the relative contribution of different causes. If things don’t improve or even worsen, then the only way to measure the effect of advocacy and policy is the use of counterfactual thinking. And that’s a problem. How bad (or good?) would things have been without advocacy and policy? We can’t redo a part of a country’s history to test what would have happened with other choices. We can speculate about the answer to “what if” questions but since we can’t experiment we’re left with a lot of uncertainty. What if Hitler had won the war? Or had been admitted to art school? Fun questions to try and answer, but the answers won’t tell us much about the real world, unfortunately. If they did, we would know what to do.

More posts in this series are here.

Measuring Human Rights (31): Which Changes in the Spatial Pattern of Human Rights Are Most Likely?

One result of human rights measurement is a spatial pattern of human rights, a pattern that of course changes over time: countries with lower or higher levels of respect for human rights show up on a world map and this world map shows a certain spatial pattern.

The current spatial pattern of human rights is, somewhat simplistically, like this: wealthy and developed “Western” countries, although by no means free from human rights violations, show on average higher levels of respect for human rights than most developing nations. This is no reason to distribute praise or blame: developed countries share responsibility for human rights violations in developing countries, and high levels of respect for certain human rights in developed countries may be partly a matter of luck or perhaps even the direct consequence of the exploitation of developing regions. It’s also the case that rights cost money, hence wealthier countries can be expected to show higher levels of respect for rights.

Just take it as a fact rather than a judgment, admittedly a stylized fact (one can argue that human rights are better protected in Italy than in the US even though the latter is much wealthier; the same is true if you compare Botswana en China). Here‘s an example of one human rights index that confirms this spatial pattern.

Given this current spatial pattern, what’s our best guess about the future? The dynamics of human rights are poorly understood: unfortunately, we don’t really know which actions or events are most likely to change levels of respect for human rights, at least not in the positive sense. We know that war, genocide, authoritarian rule and poverty bring levels down, but we don’t know quite as well how to bring levels up. We assume that different types of forces may play a role:

  • bottom-up forces such as popular revolts, changes in cultural practice etc.;
  • top-down forces such as coups d’états, government policies, national legislation, international law, international institutions etc.;
  • horizontal forces such as peer pressure among states, conditional bilateral development aid, pay-offs, military intervention, naming-and-shaming etc.

Incentives also play a role, and maybe even forces beyond human control such as climate, geography etc. However, the exact result and impact of these forces is unclear and controversial, so we don’t really know what to do and kinda grope in the dark hoping something is successful.

Given the fact that many people and many institutions actually try to do something in order to raise levels of respect for human rights, it’s indeed likely that some actions will be somewhat effective. Hence the spatial pattern of human rights may change in the future. Here are my guesses as to how it may change:

  1. Those areas of the world where respect for rights is already relatively high are most likely to see additional improvements. I agree that low hanging fruit is easiest to pick, and that is why we may see spectacular progress in some countries where respect is currently low: the removal of an oppressive regime can, in theory, bring rapid and large improvements in levels of respect, but in practice there are very few cases (often the overthrow of an oppressive regime is followed by civil war or a successor regime that is only slightly better or even worse). Conversely, sometimes high hanging fruit is, paradoxically, easier to pick. Countries with a reasonably high level of respect often have a history of struggle for rights as well as a culture of rights resulting from that struggle. Rights are part of the ethos of the common man. Remaining rights violations will therefore be more jarring, and existing institutions necessary to tackle them are in place. Another reason to believe that improvements in human rights will first take place in those countries that are already relatively good is the dynamic of bilateral aid: aid donors are likely to give more to countries that already have a certain level of respect, not just because donors like aid conditionality but also because of things such as the “bottomless pit syndrome”. Badly governed countries just take the aid and spend it for the rulers’ personal profit. Donors understandably don’t like this and therefore tend to give to countries that are better governed.
  2. Those areas of the world adjacent to areas where respect for rights is already relatively high are likely to see additional improvements. Countries tend to see rights violations in neighboring countries as more urgent than rights violations far away. The former violations can have spillover effects: a civil war in the country next door can cause refugee flows into your own country or other types of spillovers, hence you have an incentive to do something about the war. The same is true for other types of rights violations. Rights violations in a country far away don’t create the same incentives to act. Additionally, the EU and other regional organizations insist that candidate member countries – almost always adjacent countries – first respect human rights before they can become members. These candidate countries therefore have a powerful incentive to raise levels of respect, since membership is often profitable. And there are also other, non-spatial types of proximity among adjacent countries: they may share a language – or their languages may belong to the same family – or a religion. This kind of cultural proximity makes bilateral intervention more likely and more acceptable. If one of two adjacent countries has a high level of respect for human rights, it may find it easier to intervene in the other country in order to foster human rights. It may offer effective institutional assistance for instance, assistance that is more effective – because more acceptable and easier – than assistance from a country far away, “far away” both spatially and culturally. Another reason to believe that proximity plays a role: a country that exists in the proximity of other countries that perform better in the field of human rights is in direct competition with those other countries; competition for workers, international investment etc. Both workers and companies will prefer to invest in countries that are free. Hence the underperformers in a certain region will have the incentive to do better.

If these two claims are correct, then we’ll see increasing polarization among two groups of countries. Not the optimal outcome, but perhaps the most likely one. Time will tell.

More posts in this series are here.

Measuring Human Rights (30): Distortions Caused by the Exclusion of Prisoners

I’ve already cited one example of human rights measurement gone wrong because of the exclusion of the prison inmate population: violent crime rates seem to go down in many countries, but a lot of the decrease only happens because surveys and databases exclude the crimes that take place inside of prisons. Crime may not have gone down at all; perhaps a lot of it has just been moved to the prisons.

I’ll now add a few other examples of distortions in human rights measurement caused by the exclusion of the prisoner population. The cases I’ll cite result in distortions because the exclusion of the prison population is the exclusion of a non-representative sample of the total population. For example, it’s well-known that African-Americans make up a disproportionate share of the inmate population in the U.S. Becky Pettit, a University of Washington sociologist, argues in her book “Invisible Men” that we shouldn’t take for granted some of the indicators of black progress in the U.S.:

For example, without adjusting for prisoners, the high-school completion gap between white and black men has fallen by more than 50% since 1980 … After adjusting … the gap has barely closed and has been constant since the late 1980s. (source)

We see similar results when counting or better recounting voter turnout numbers, employment rates etc.

It should be rather easy to include prisoners in most of these measurements – certainly compared to the homeless, illegal immigrants and citizens of dictatorships. The fact that we almost systematically exclude them is testimony to our attitude towards prisoners: they are excluded from society, and they literally don’t count.

More posts in this series are here.

Measuring Human Rights (29): When More Means Less, and Vice Versa, Ctd.

Take the example of rape measurement: better statistical and reporting methods used by the police, combined with less social stigma and other factors result in statistics showing a rising number of rapes, but this increase is due to the measurement methods and other effects, not to what happened in real life. The actual number of rapes may have gone down.

This is a general problem in human rights measurement: more often means less, and vice versa. The nature of the thing we’re trying to measure – human rights violations – means that the more there is, the more difficult it is to measure; and the more difficult, the more likely that we wrongly conclude that there is less. (See here). When levels of rights violations approach totalitarianism, people won’t report, won’t dare to speak, or won’t be able to speak. It’s not social stigma or shame that prevents them from speaking, as in the case of rape, but fear. Furthermore, totalitarian governments won’t allow monitoring, and will have managed to some extent to indoctrinate their citizens. Finally, the state of the economy won’t allow for easy transport and communication, given the correlation between economic underdevelopment and authoritarian government.

Conversely, higher levels of respect for human rights will yield statistics showing more rights violations, because a certain level of respect for human rights makes monitoring easier.

More on measuring human rights.

Measuring Human Rights (27): Measuring Crime

A number of crimes are also human rights violations, so crime rates can tell us something about the degree of respect for human rights. Unfortunately, as in most cases of rights measurement, crime measurement is difficult. I won’t discuss the usual difficulties here – underreporting by victims or relatives, lack of evidence, corrupt or inefficient police departments etc. Instead, I want to mention one particularly interesting problem that is seldom mentioned but possibly fatal for crime rate statistics: most reductions in crime rates are not really reductions, especially not those reductions that come about as a result of tougher law enforcement and higher incarceration rates. When we imprison criminals, rather than bringing crimes rates down, we just move the crime from society towards the prisons:

the figures that suggest that violence has been disappearing in the United States contain a blind spot so large that to cite them uncritically, as the major papers do, is to collude in an epic con. Uncounted in the official tallies are the hundreds of thousands of crimes that take place in the country’s prison system, a vast and growing residential network whose forsaken tenants increasingly bear the brunt of America’s propensity for anger and violence.

Crime has not fallen in the United States—it’s been shifted. Just as Wall Street connived with regulators to transfer financial risk from spendthrift banks to careless home buyers, so have federal, state, and local legislatures succeeded in rerouting criminal risk away from urban centers and concentrating it in a proliferating web of hyperhells. (source, source)

And there’s no way to correct for this and adjust overall crime rate statistics because quality statistics on crime rates inside prison are even harder to get than statistics on “normal” crime rates – given the quasi lawlessness of prison life.

More on prison violence here and here.

Measuring Human Rights (26): Measuring Murder

Murder should be easy to measure. Unlike many other crimes or rights violations, the evidence is clear and painstakingly recorded: there is a body, at least in most cases; police seldom fail to notice a murder; and relatives or friends of the victim rarely fail to report the crime. So even if we are not always able to find and punish murderers, we should at least know how many murders there are.

And yet, even this most obvious of crimes can be hard to measure. In poorer countries, police departments may not have the means necessary to record homicides correctly and completely. Families may be weary of reporting homicides for fear of corrupt police officers entering their homes and using the occasion to extort bribes. Civil wars make it difficult to collect any data, including crime data. During wartime, homicides may not be distinguishable from casualties of the war.

And there’s more. Police departments in violent places may be under pressure to bring down crime stats and may manipulate the data as a result: moving some dubious murder cases to categories such as “accidents”, “manslaughter”, “suicide” etc.

Homicides usually take place in cities, hence the temptation to rank cities according to homicide rates. But cities differ in the way they determine their borders: suburbs may be included or not, or partially, and this affects homicide rates since suburbs tend to be less violent. Some cities have more visitors than other cities (more commuters, tourists, business trips) and visitors are usually not counted as “population” while they may also be at risk of murder.

In addition, some ideologies may cause distortions in the data. Does abortion count as murder? Honor killings? Euthanasia and  assisted suicide? Laws and opinions about all this vary between jurisdictions and introduce biases in country comparisons.

And, finally, countries with lower murder rates may not be less violent; they may just have better emergency healthcare systems allowing them to save potential murder victims.

So, if even the most obvious of human rights violations is difficult to measure, you can guess the quality of other indicators.