Measuring What We Treasure: Human Rights Insights for Post-2015 Development

Publish Date: 
Tuesday, May 19, 2015

*** Cross-posted from the Center for Economic and Social Rights

Negotiations and political horse-trading on the post-2015 sustainable development agenda will culminate in a High-Level Summit at the UN in September, when the final package of goals, targets and indicators will be adopted. Barring any dramatic event, the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and their associated targets, will be based on the work done by the‘Open Working Group’ in 2014.

'Measuring What We Treasure': Highlights from the March 23 indicators side event organized by the Post-2015 Human Rights Caucus. With this pivotal event drawing nearer, attention has now turned to the indicators that will be used to measure progress towards the targets.  It looks very likely that the process of setting global indicators to monitor the SDGs will rumble on at least until May 2016. This should allow time for civil society – including those advocates and organizations with experience in human rights monitoring – to have their say, rather than giving statisticians the last word. Sometimes those outside of government bureaucracies know better what can be measured, and how.

In order to catalyze debate about the importance of human rights considerations when designing indicators and monitoring their progress, the Post-2015 Human Rights Caucus held a side-event at UN Headquarters in New York on March 23, during the most recent session of inter-governmental negotiations. 

The event was sponsored by the Permanent Mission of Denmark to the UN and moderated by Kate Donald, who directs the Human Rights in Development Program at CESR. A short Q&A followed the discussion. The panelists included Craig Mokhiber from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights; Savio Carvalho from Amnesty International; Tessa Kahn from the Asia-Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development; and Antonia Wulff from Education International. Bill Orme, of the Global Forum for Media Development, also delivered some valuable insights, as did Marianne Mollmann from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission

Their discussion highlighted the need for an innovative and holistic indicator framework that will create the right incentives and environment for rights-based sustainable development, taking into account lessons learned from human rights monitoring. In particular, three overarching questions were considered.

How do we make indicators meaningful from a human rights perspective? 

Rights-based indicators ensure human rights are accounted for in the SDGs. Grounding indicators in human rights implies a number of things. First, it means measuring development outcomes as levels of rights enjoyment (e.g. all children have access to free primary education). Second, it means measuring how legislative and policy processes contribute to the realization of human rights. Third it means incorporating human rights norms (e.g. non-discrimination) into the indicators selected. 

Connecting indicators on outcomes with indicators on legal structures and policy processes can paint a vivid picture. Outcome-based indicators (which have typically been the focus in monitoring development progress) serve a purpose, but they only go so far when measuring rights realization. Evaluating legal systems, processes, and the perceptions of those whose rights are being monitored provides us with a more comprehensive view of the ways state actions or inactions impact human rights enjoyment, which, in turn, can strengthen demands for accountability when progress is inadequate.

Tessa Kahn provided an example from her own work on violence against women. Instead of relying on the number of reported cases of such violence (an outcome-based indicator which is notoriously unreliable), women’s own perceptions of their safety should be included. Used with quantitative and outcome-based data, this kind of qualitative data creates a far more accurate and richer evidence base regarding violence against women. Antonia Wulff of Education International spoke about proposed indicators for education goals. She explained that, while completion rates and outcomes on reading and math are useful quantitative indicators, they fail to expose issues surrounding the quality of education received by students. Including indicators that evaluate the legal framework, policy environment and rights holders’ perceptions would place pressure on governments to make transformative changes.

How can discrimination and multiple inequalities be measured?

Data that is disaggregated on multiple grounds is perhaps the most important tool we have to focus on marginalized groups, commented Craig Mokhiber of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. It was noted that the variables for disaggregation should align with international standards on discrimination; demographic information should be expanded to include all marginalized groups, not simply categories of gender and geography. Marianne Mollman of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission underlined the lack of data regarding LGBTI people as an example. There may be indirect indicators, like hate-crime and HIV-related statistics, but very little formal and focused data on their experience exists, she said. This dearth of data affects our ability to measure how LGBTI people benefit from development, if at all. 

Particular indicators may be especially helpful in capturing multiple inequalities. Three examples were shared by panelists: literacy, access to justice, and access to land. These indicators can reveal information on multiple inequalities as well: literacy and access to land can be used as proxy indicators for poverty in many contexts, while access to justice is a right in itself and is necessary for the realization of a host of other human rights and areas of human development.

Conducting surveys on different areas of life (e.g. work, health, and education) can also provide insights regarding discrimination – particularly how individuals experience multiple inequalities. This illustrates the importance of using qualitative data to supplement quantitative data. It is also important, however, to be sensitive to the risks that those who reveal themselves as part of a marginalized group may face. Individuals may feel at risk if they reveal their identity and non-disclosure is often preferable to disclosure. This is true for many uncounted populations, such as LGBTI, street children, and undocumented workers. Careful safeguards must therefore be put in place, for example around privacy and the right to self-identification.


Like the Millennium Development Goals they will replace, our assessment of progress towards the SDGs will be largely data driven. As a result, it is tempting to select indicators for which data is readily available, ignoring other important, but less measured issues. For instance, collecting data on school drop-out rates among gender non-conforming youth would provide great insight into the process of marginalization, yet this kind of data is relatively difficult to collect and, as a result, it is largely neglected at present. 

It is clear that the SDGs could play an important role in delivering a more just, sustainable and equitable development trajectory, ensuring a life of dignity for more of the world’s people. The accountability gap witnessed under the current MDGs highlights the importance of creating a framework for monitoring based on indicators that incorporate human rights. As the negotiations between governments, international agencies and civil society advance, those involved in human rights monitoring will no doubt have further insights to share. We look forward to continuing this discussion in a variety of forums, including ESCR-Net’s Monitoring Working Group, which CESR co-coordinates.