Measuring economic & social human rights

Economic and social human rights ensure that all people have access to the basic goods, services, and opportunities necessary to survive and thrive. In international law, they can be summed up as discrimination-free access to an adequate standard of living, dignified employment, a minimum basic income, comprehensive health care, and extensive educational and cultural opportunities. With a strong presence in the Universal Declaration and the core international human rights treaties, economic and social rights are equal in status and importance with civil and political rights.

What is unique about these measures compared with other indicators of economic development?

Our measures are based on methodology that is unique in this area. It allows us to show how well the state is using its available resources to ensure all people enjoy these rights. We do this because under international law, a higher level of performance is expected from richer countries.

The Human Rights Measurement Initiative’s (HRMI’s) economic and social rights fulfilment measures are the only measures that:

  • Show how well each country is doing relative to what is feasible for a country with that level of economic resources.
  • Allow cross-country comparisons in rights fulfilment.
  • Provide an objective assessment of whether the overall situation regarding each economic and social right in a country is improving or deteriorating.
  • Provide a methodology to examine disparity in rights fulfilment between regions, or between racial, ethnic, gender, and other population sub-groups.

Our measures of economic and social rights

At this time, HRMI’s economic and social rights measures capture the fulfilment of five economic and social human rights:

Each of these is constructed from internationally-comparable, publicly-available objective data, such as statistics on infant mortality and school enrolment. They also take into account the fact that, as stated in Article 2 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), each country is obligated to progressively achieve economic and social rights “to the maximum of its available resources.” Essentially, this means that better performance is expected from richer countries.

Statistics such as school enrolment and infant mortality can help to tell us the extent to which individuals in each country enjoy economic and social rights. But it is not until the country’s GDP per capita is also taken into account that we can get a good sense of whether a state is complying with its obligations to progressively respect, protect, and fulfil those rights. These measures do just that.

This methodology has been developed by Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, Terra Lawson-Remer, and Susan Randolph with one of our partner organisations, the Economic and Social Rights Empowerment Initiative (ESREI). This approach is highly regarded by the human rights community. In 2016, a book detailing this methodology – Fulfilling Social and Economic Rights by Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, Terra Lawson-Remer, and Susan Randolph – won the American Political Science Association prize for the best book in human rights scholarship.

For more information you might like to watch Susan Randolph’s TED talk on measuring economic and social rights or read our detailed methodology handbook.

What data are available, for what years, and where can I find the data?

Measures for these five rights have been calculated for between 120 and 160 countries, depending on the right, going back 10 years. You can access them on our data visualisation website. ESREI has also combined these five rights measures into a composite index known as the Social and Economic Rights Fulfilment Index, which you can access on the ESREI website.

References

Fukuda-Parr, Sakiko, Terra Lawson-Remer and Susan Randolph. 2015. Fulfilling Social and Economic Rights. Oxford University Press.