Looking at the SDGs with fresh eyes: how HRMI human rights data can help

By HRMI co-founders Susan Randolph and Anne-Marie Brook, and Thalia Kehoe Rowden

This article uses data published on the Rights Tracker in June 2020. 

There are strong connections between human rights monitoring and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Indeed, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development ‘seeks to realise the human rights of all.’ So it should not come as a surprise to learn that the Human Rights Measurement Initiative (HRMI)’s scores are an important complement to the SDGs.

This article sets out three ways in which HRMI human rights data can support comprehensive and robust SDG reporting, focusing on 1) HRMI’s independence; 2) HRMI’s unique methodology which takes country income into account; and 3) HRMI’s civil and political rights data, which can help monitor Goal 16.

1. HRMI data are produced independently from governments

A key feature of HRMI’s assessments is that they are independent of governments, whereas the SDGs are designed to be assessed by countries themselves.

As such, HRMI’s scores serve as a valuable source for ‘shadow reporting’ on the SDGs, allowing non-state actors to raise issues that states themselves may be ignoring or underplaying in their assessments.

HRMI is a non-profit organisation, funded by grants and donations. Elsewhere on our website you can see who funds us, and read more about our values, including independence.

2. SDG monitoring can benefit from HRMI’s unique methodology for measuring economic and social rights

Second, HRMI’s award-winning methodology for measuring country performance on food, education, health, housing and work, brings something very unique to the assessment process.

Everyone knows that it is easier for a rich country to get good education outcomes than it is for a low or middle-income country, so simply assessing each country against the same benchmarks doesn’t hold them to account equally well. Instead, HRMI assesses them relative to benchmarks that take into account each country’s level of economic development. In other words, the methodology incorporates the idea of progressive realisation, shedding light on how effectively each country is using its available resources to achieve the SDG (or other human right) indicator concerned. This means that:

  • Using HRMI’s economic and social rights data will allow you to distinguish between countries that are doing poorly because they are not using their resources well, versus those that are doing the best they can with their available resources but would require additional income, development aid or technical assistance to do better.
  • It will also allow you to identify the extent of the additional resources required to enable resource constrained countries to reach the different SDGs.

3. HRMI scores can help with Goal 16

Third, we note that the SDG framework has very few indicators available for monitoring Goal 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions. HRMI’s civil and political rights data can help you to fill this gap.


Below we elaborate on each of these three points.

An introduction to HRMI data

HRMI’s dataset so far includes measures of 13 internationally recognised human rights acknowledged by UN member states and defined according to the International Bill of Human Rights.

Metrics for 5 economic and social rights (ESRs) are produced using publicly available statistics, and are available for around 200, depending on the right. Currently we produce scores for these rights:

  • education
  • food
  • health
  • housing
  • work/social security

These ESR data have strong and direct links with SDG goals 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10 and 11, as will be further discussed below.

Using a completely different methodology, HRMI also produces scores for 8 civil and political rights:

  • freedom of opinion and expression
  • freedom of assembly and association
  • political participation
  • freedom from torture
  • freedom from execution by death penalty
  • freedom from extrajudicial execution
  • freedom from disappearance
  • freedom from arbitrary or political arrest and detention.

These data relate strongly to SDG 16: Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions, where they can help to fill data gaps and allow more comprehensive monitoring.

Because publicly available statistics are not available for these rights, HRMI collects data via a detailed multi-lingual expert survey that is filled out by human rights practitioners such as lawyers, researchers and advocates. This is a labour-intensive process, so we started with a small group of countries and add more each year, as increased funding allows.

In 2020 we produced these civil and political rights data for 33 countries. You can see an up-to-date list of our country coverage elsewhere on our website.

How to use HRMI’s economic and social rights data for the SDGs

HRMI’s economic and social rights scores are constructed from publicly available data published by international organisations such as UNESCO, the FAO, the OECD, and the Luxembourg Income Study. Many of the indicators HRMI uses to assess the different economic and social rights are the exact same indicators used to assess the SDG targets (as shown in Table 1 at the bottom of this article).

To illustrate, let’s look at Malawi’s economic and social rights scores.

The screenshots below, from HRMI’s online Rights Tracker, show Malawi’s performance measured against two different benchmarks: first, the ‘income adjusted’ benchmark, then the ‘global best’ benchmark.

Graph of Malawi's economic and human rights scores, from RightsTracker.org

Malawi’s economic and social rights scores, using the income adjusted benchmark. View on the Rights Tracker.

The income adjusted benchmark, drawn from the award-winning SERF Index methodology, evaluates each country’s performance relative to the best outcomes other countries have achieved at that country’s per capita income level. The global best benchmark evaluates performance compared to the best results in the world, disregarding income constraints.

Malawi’s scores on the income adjusted benchmark, above, show how effectively it is using its current resources to achieve that right or goal. HRMI’s scores on this benchmark measure the progressive realisation of rights, and show whether countries are meeting their obligations to devote the maximum of their available resources to achieving good rights outcomes for their people.

In the case of Malawi, which has a very low GDP per capita, we can see above that it is using its (meager) available resources best with respect to realising people’s right to health. Our methodology takes income into account, so every country should be able to get near 100%. However, for the right to housing, Malawi’s very low score suggests that even with its low level of resources, it could achieve a lot more for people.

By contrast, the global best benchmark doesn’t consider income constraints, and makes it clear how far away full enjoyment of rights is for the people of Malawi.

The screenshot below shows Malawi’s scores using the global best benchmark. This compares Malawi’s performance with the best outcomes of other countries at any income level, including the wealthiest countries in the world. The 100% benchmark represents the maximum enjoyment level of each right that is feasible given current knowledge.

The difference in the benchmarks can give us insight into the level of resources that would be required to enable the country concerned to fully realise the right or goal concerned.

Even though Malawi has a reasonably high income-adjusted score for the right to health, when we compare Malawi’s health achievements with what’s possible in the richest countries, we see that there is a large gap between their current performance and what they could aspire to if they had more resources.

This shows the role that income constraints are playing in preventing people in Malawi from enjoying their right to health.

Graph of Malawi's economic and human rights scores, from RightsTracker.org

Malawi’s economic and social rights scores, using the global best benchmark. View on the Rights Tracker.


Now consider the Philippines’ right to food scores of 55.3% (income adjusted score) and 53.4% (global best score). The Rights Tracker screenshot below shows the global best score. The dotted line near the 100% mark shows the target the Philippines could be expected to reach when its income is taken into account.

There isn’t much difference between what we expect the Philippines government could achieve at its level of income, and what it could achieve if it had all the resources it needed. The message to leaders in the Philippines is that resources are not holding it back very much – there are other factors, probably within its control, that are stopping it from realising people’s rights.

For the Philippines, the conclusion is that by using its available resources more effectively, and reaching its income adjusted target, it would also be very close to the global best – all without requiring additional resources.

Graph showing human rights scores for the Philippines, from RightsTracker.org

Quality of Life scores for the Philippines. See the full set of data on the Rights Tracker.

HRMI’s database is freely available on our Rights Tracker. Country progress in meeting the SDGs concordant with HRMI’s ESR indicators can readily be tracked using either the income adjusted or global best standard over the past decade.

To provide an example of progress over time, the graph below shows  progress on one indicator relevant to SDG 4: Quality Education. Target 4.1 is focused on ensuring all children have access to secondary school:

by 2030 ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes.

This chart shows that although the Philippines has made considerable progress, things have deteriorated or plateaued in recent years. The fact that its score remains well below 100% tells us that much more could be done, even at its current per capita income level.

The Philippines’ scores for the right to education, over time. View on the Rights Tracker.

Using HRMI’s civil and political rights data to help monitor SDG 16

HRMI’s civil and political rights (CPR) data directly align with SDG 16: Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions, and in particular those targets focused on providing access to justice for all and building effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels.

Our CPR scores are available on the Rights Tracker for a sample of 33 countries in 2020, rising each year. We are ready to cover all countries as soon as funding permits. Scores are produced using a peer-reviewed expert survey methodology.

We produce scores for 3 empowerment rights, and 5 rights tracking people’s safety from state abuse.

To give an example, the Rights Tracker screenshot below shows the United States’ scores on the 5 aspects of safety from the state we measure.

Countries are scored on a 10 point scale on each right where a higher score implies better performance. Uncertainty about each country’s precise score is represented by uncertainty bands: the 80% certainty band is shown by the purple bar while the mid-point score shown is the best estimate of the country’s performance. These scores, and the country comparisons available on the HRMI Rights Tracker, show that the United States’ performance on SDG 16 is seriously lacking in several regards.

Figure 6: United States scores for Safety from the State.

Figure 6: United States scores for Safety from the State. View on the Rights Tracker.

HRMI data can help focus on gender equality and vulnerable populations

As is consistent with the International Bill of Rights, the SDGs place emphasis on promoting gender equality and protecting vulnerable populations. HRMI’s metrics incorporate ways of assessing both of these concerns.

First, HRMI’s ESR scores on the rights to food, education and health are disaggregated by sex whenever possible. You can see disaggregated scores on the Quality of Life tab of every country page on the Rights Tracker.

Second, the expert survey collects information from survey respondents on which people are at heightened risk of violations of each right.

We show this information in the form of a word cloud for the right to freedom from the death penalty, as in the screenshot below.

This image tell us that for the United States, 64% of survey respondents identified refugees and asylum seekers as being at greater risk than the general population of violation of the right to freedom from the death penalty.

Word cloud showing United States, people at risk, death penalty, HRMI

People at risk of having their right to freedom from the death penalty violated, United States. View on the Rights Tracker.

Global Goals, Sustainable Development Goals

Shared HRMI and SDG indicators

The table below shows the match between the indicators HRMI uses to assess countries on their human rights performance and the SDG targets and indicators.

Note that because some of the indicators collected for low- and middle-income countries differ from those collected for high-income countries, and because the human rights challenges differ between the two sets of countries, HRMI metrics offer two assessment standards: one most relevant to low- and middle-income countries, and the second most relevant to high-income countries. We use these ‘default’ collections of indicators to calculate the scores we display first on the Rights Tracker, but we calculate scores for all countries on all available indicators.

The first column shows the indicators HRMI uses to assess each right for both assessment standards (indicated in columns two and three).

Column 4 shows the related SDG, column 5 shows the SDG target number concerned, and column 6, the specific SDG indicator number where relevant.

The HRMI ESR indicator names are specified in terms of rights enjoyment rather than the deficit. So, for example, while SDG target 2.2.1 is specified as the ‘prevalence of stunting among children under 5’, the HRMI indicator is specified as the ‘percentage children under 5 who are not stunted.’

Table: Concordance between HRMI economic and social rights and the Sustainable Development Goals

HRMI Rights and Indicators


Assessment Standard SDG SDG Target Number SDG Indicator Number
High Income Low and Middle
Right to Food 2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
Percentage children under 5 not stunted 2 2.2 2.2.1
Percentage population not moderately or severely food insecure 2 2.1 2.1.2
Right to Education 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere.

5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

Adjusted net primary school enrolment rate & by sex 4, 1, 5 4.1, 4.3, 1.2, 4.5, 5.1
Net secondary school enrolment rate & by sex 4, 5 4.1, 4.3, 4.5, 5.1
% achieving > level 2 on PISA reading test & by sex 4, 5 4.1, 4.6, 4.5, 5.1 4.1.1
% achieving > level 2 on PISA math test & by sex 4, 5 4.1, 4.6, 4.5, 5.1 4.1.1
% achieving > level 2 on PISA science test & by sex 4 4.1 4.6, 4.5, 5.1
Right to Health 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages.

1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere.

5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

Child (under 5) survival rate 3, 1 3.2, 1.2 3.2.1
Adult (15-60) % survival rate. 3
% newborns not low birth weight 3 3.2, 2.1
% women (15-49) using modern contraceptive methods 3, 5 3.7, 5.6 3.7.1
Right to Housing 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. 1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere.

11: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

% population with basic water access on premises 6, 1, 11 6.1, 6.2, 1.4, 11.1
% of poorest income quintile with access to affordable housing 6, 1, 11 11.1
% population with basic sanitation 6, 1, 11 6.2, 1.4, 11.1
% population.4 with safely managed sanitation 6, 11 6.2, 11.1 6.2.1


Right to Work 1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere.

4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

8: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.

% population with >$3.2 (2011 PPP$) per day 1, 8 1.1, 1.2, 8.3, 8.5 1.1.1
% population with >50% median income 1, 10, 8 1.2, 10.2, 10.3, 8.3, 8.5 10.2, 1
% unemployed not long-term unemployed 8, 4 8.5, 4.4


For all our latest data, visit the HRMI Rights Tracker. You can also download the dataset, and read the full methodology guide.

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