Collective position on data for economic, social, and cultural rights
*This is an ongoing member-led collective document. Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to add a comment or feedback.
Collective position on data for economic, social, and cultural rights: introduction
Data – its production and use – is an unavoidable feature of life. As decision-makers and power holders increasingly rely on huge amounts of data to make policies and other decisions about people’s economic, social, and cultural rights, we cannot assume that this data is neutral or objective. Nor can we assume that the right kinds of data are collected.
Data is necessary for the realisation of human rights. Without it we cannot understand the prevailing human rights situation, we cannot make informed policy decisions, and we cannot assess the effectiveness of those policy decisions. But there is a human rights data gap. States are failing to produce and use the right kinds of data necessary for the advancement of human rights—to the extent that states’ data practices and processes sometimes pose a threat to human rights.
Data processes, such as the Sustainable Development Goals at the global level, censuses at the national level or environmental impact assessments at the local level tend to exclude affected communities and marginalized groups, which means they are unrepresented in data and have little say over what data is collected and how it is used. This is problematic because it renders entire subpopulations invisible to policy-makers and powerful actors, often resulting in further marginalisation. There are countless examples. Women and girls are often absent in data–the gender data gap–which means that decisions are taken without taking into consideration the needs of women and girls, which in turn reinforces gender inequality. During the Covid-19 pandemic, many European countries failed to collect health data disaggregated by race, which meant they were unable to craft adequate responses. The increasing use of algorithms often leads to discrimination because the data that algorithms are trained on contains biases.
These examples are choices. Decision-makers choose to exclude groups and the things that are important to marginalised groups, often not intentionally [although sometimes so] but because of who has power and who does not. Our starting point for this collective position is, therefore, that data is inherently political. The first step in ensuring that data serves to enhance the enjoyment of human rights is to recognize this fact. Then, in order to remedy the problems with the current system, we must demystify and democratize data. More often than not, the role that data currently plays in decision-making is to replace difficult political conversations with choices masked as purely technical in nature, for instance, when powerful actors say it is too onerous to establish truly participatory decision-making processes or that it is too difficult to collect disaggregated data or even that lived experience is not valid information upon which decisions should be made. This allows those in power to sidestep confronting more systemic problems, such as inequality, racism, patriarchy, in which they may be implicated.
This is unfortunately not a new problem. Data has always been used by those in power to justify decisions that cement power over others. Well before the current era of global sustainable development, certain kinds of data – those considered “scientifically objective” – have been used to mask and justify more political motivations, such as the domination and silencing of people. Colonial powers claimed to collect “scientific” information about colonised people for the purposes of their ‘betterment’. Today’s sustainable development regime continues to adopt a position on data that is paternalistic and dominated by powerful actors, including former colonial powers, who continue to exercise power through the control of information. By diminishing the knowledge and experiences of affected and marginalized communities and designating it as inferior information, it effectively further sidelines the very communities it purports to serve. The result is a significant imbalance in power over development policies and practices, and therefore over people’s lives, which needs to be challenged.
This historical legacy and what we know about how data operates today means we must scrutinize data practices because, though they are often framed as objective, that does not make them just. And while the principle of “what gets counted, counts” should be our starting point, we also need to ask questions about who decides what gets counted, how it gets counted, and how data is used.
Human rights can serve as a tool to identify and examine the ways in which power is reproduced in the production and use of data. It also suggests ways in which we may begin to correct these imbalances and distortions. In line with a human rights-based approach, ESCR-Net’s core principles, and the ESCR-Net Common Charter for collective struggle, we assert that affected communities must be at the centre of decision-making that affects their wellbeing, and where human rights are at stake, their needs and involvement must be prioritised.
Why we developed the collective position
In January 2019, 19 members of the ESCR-Net Monitoring Working Group met in Mexico to discuss the role of data in advancing economic, social, and cultural rights as well as gaps in existing data practices. Our common experience was that of a lack of availability of official data on economic, social, and cultural rights and where data did exist it was often not of the requisite quality. As a working group comprised mainly of over 40 civil society organisations, particularly grassroots and community-based organisations that collect data, we also discussed how our data, and data produced by communities more generally, is quite often dismissed as inferior to official data, particularly quantitative data, but actually has a major role to play in advancing economic, social, and cultural rights because it reflects communities’ concerns and lived experiences. As a result, we all agreed on the need to challenge dominant narratives around what kinds of data counts as legitimate and to propose a powerful vision for a human rights-based approach to data.
As a first step, we started to collectively identify an initial set of principles for how data on economic, social, and cultural rights should be produced and used, in line with human rights law. We combined this with our experiences as human rights researchers and advocates working with marginalised communities whose economic, social, and cultural rights are neglected by states. We also decided to strengthen this initial analysis to articulate a collective position on a human rights-based approach for economic, social, and cultural rights. Following the meeting in Mexico, we developed a document summarizing the set of principles identified, and sought further inputs and analysis from other members of ESCR-Net, particularly social movements, in line with ESCR-Net’s core principles of social movement centrality and regional representation. On that basis, a group of six members have embarked on a year-long research and drafting process which led to this collective position on data and economic, social, and cultural rights.
Purpose and intended audience of the collective position
The ultimate aim of the collective position is to serve as a concrete point of reference for ESCR-Net members and broader civil society to advocate for data that foregrounds human rights and in doing so centres rights-holders and affected communities in data and monitoring processes and practices. We believe that in doing so, we can disrupt the very power dynamics that result in the exclusion and marginalisation of rights-holders, whilst also enabling more democratic and effective decision-making.
In order to support ESCR-Net members to advocate for a human rights-based approach to data, we have identified five human rights principles that states must apply to their data practices. These principles are based on states’ well-established legal obligations regarding monitoring and the production and use of data to implement and advance the enjoyment of economic, social, and cultural rights. By understanding and using these principles, we believe that ESCR-Net members can advocate for better official data and influence states’ monitoring and decision-making processes to advance human rights and social justice.
Because the principles examine and clarify states’ legal obligations regarding data, states themselves are a natural target audience of the collective position. While we recognise the contribution of civil society in gathering and using data to advance human rights and accountability, ultimately it is states that must produce and use high quality data, and make it publicly available, in line with their human rights obligations. Moreover, as we witness the relentless, mass-scale gathering and use of personal data by the private sector - in what scholars have labeled as ‘surveillance capitalism’ - the collective position re-affirms states’ duty to protect, domestically and internationally, against human rights abuses by third parties, including corporations.
For states, ensuring they are complying with their human rights obligations is not the only benefit of using these principles; there are also instrumental benefits, namely improving the quality of data produced to make policies more responsive and increasing buy-in, and thereby increasing policy quality and effectiveness.
What are the five principles
1. Equality and non-discrimination: Data must be produced and used to eliminate discrimination and bring about substantive equality, and the data processes and systems must themselves be free from discrimination and as inclusive as possible. To this end data must be representative, which states can achieve by disaggregating data and ensuring that rights-holders are able to self-identify when being counted in data.
2. Participation: Human rights data requires the participation of rights-holders, particularly affected communities, at every stage of its life cycle. This begins with creating spaces and opportunities for communities to meaningfully shape and participate in the collection of official data and ensuring that monitoring processes are accountable to communities.
3. High quality data: Human rights data must have certain features that make it useful and actionable. These features include: relevance, timeliness, accuracy, completeness, and consistency. States must increase the quality of data by diversifying the types and sources of data, such as community-led data.
4. Transparency & accessibility of information:Official monitoring and data processes must keep relevant, timely, and consistent information about how they operate and the work they do. They must ensure that all information and data on the status of economic, social, and cultural rights and the steps states are taking to comply with their human rights obligations, is publicly available. Rights-holders must be able to understand and use this data.
5. Privacy and security: Data must be produced and used in such ways as to protect the rights to privacy and security of person, including ensuring the right to data protection.
It is important to note that the principles are not mutually exclusive and relate to each other in important ways, for example, participation, which is dependent on transparency and the right to information, is required to ensure that data is of high quality and to ensure that data can be used to advance equality and non-discrimination. Where important linkages exist, we point them out in each principle.
The principles are currently being reviewed by ESCR-Net members and will be shared over the next few months. If you are interested in reading and commenting on one or more of the principles please email: email@example.com
What and to whom do the five principles apply
The principles outlined in this collective position apply mainly to economic, social, and cultural rights but are no less relevant to data for environmental, civil, and political rights.
They apply to all official data and monitoring processes and practices, whether formal or informal, that affect, directly or indirectly, economic, social, and cultural rights. This includes data and monitoring processes associated with measures, whether laws, policies, programmes, etc. to implement economic, social, and cultural rights, as well as measures that relate to economic, social, and cultural rights, for example, fiscal, social, and development policies.
The principles apply to official data on economic, social, and cultural rights, that is, state produced data, including entities within states tasked with data production and use, such as: national statistical offices; ministries and departments responsible for economic, social, and cultural rights, such as ministries of education, health, work, social security, development, justice, and finance; national human rights institutions; parliamentary bodies; and local authorities.
The principles apply to all stages, where relevant, of the data life cycle, including the: design, collection, recording, production, processing, use, analysis, combining, storage, presentation, disclosure, and dissemination of data.
They also apply to non-state actors that take on state-like responsibilities, for instance, in the provision of public services and any privately-produced data that may hinder the enjoyment of economic, social, and cultural rights.
The principles apply to the data and monitoring processes of international organisations and agencies, such as: UN treaty bodies, UNESCO, UNICEF, the World Bank, the OECD, etc, which are often composed of states and publicly funded, many of which collect primary data on economic, social, and cultural rights, compile secondary data, and influence what kinds of data states collect.
The principles, as is the case with human rights law, apply in all contexts, including in emergencies, such as during and after armed conflict, in fragile states, as well as during and in the wake of natural disasters and pandemics.
 Seager, J. (2016) “Missing Women, Blank Maps, and Data Voids: What Gets Counted Counts,” talk at the Boston Public Library, March 22, 2016. Available at https://civic.mit.edu/2016/03/22/missing-women-blank-maps-and-data-voids-what-gets-counted-counts/. (Accessed 08/04/2021.)
 Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia (ACIJ, Arg), Al Haq (OPT), Areli Sandoval Terán (individual member, México), Centro Mexicano de Derecho Ambiental (CEMDA, México), Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR, US), Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL, US), Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR, Egypt), Fundar - Centro de Análisis e Investigación (México), Fundación Para el Desarrollo de Políticas Sostenibles (FUNDEPS, Arg), Economic and Social Rights Centre (Hakijamii, Kenya), Habitat International Coalition (HIC, México), International Accountability Project (IAP, global), Initiative for Social and Economic rights (ISER, Uganda), International Women’s Rights Action Watch (IWRAW, Thailand), Natural Resource Women Platform (NRWP, Liberia), Nazdeek (India), Project on Organising, Development, Education and Research (PODER, México), Right to Education Initiative (UK), Video Volunteers (India).
 Parallely to efforts to deepen the analysis around data and ESCR, the Monitoring WG has also begun working closely with social movements to produce community-led data on issues of land, housing and natural resources https://www.escr-net.org/news/2020/community-led-research-corporate-capture-and-rights-land-housing-and-natural-resources
 The summary document was discussed with participants of the second women leader’s exchange in Chiang Mai, Thailand in 2019 https://www.escr-net.org/news/2019/women-articulating-shared-positions-and-advancing-collective-action-land-and-natural
 ACIJ (Argentina), Center for Economic and Social Rights (US), Hakijamii (Kenya), International Accountability Project (US), Right to Education Initiative (UK), Video Volunteers (India), and Magali Brosio (individual member, Argentina/UK), with Francesca Feruglio from the ESCR-Net Secretariat coordinating the overall process. In particular, Erica Murphy has led the research and drafting of the position in the last six months of the process.
 See section on methods for further information
 Zuboff, S. ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power’, New York: PublicAffairs, 2019.
 Note that we used the phrase ‘production and use of data’ throughout the collective position to refer to all actions and modifications of data, including but not limited to: design, collection, recording, production, processing, use, analysis, combining, storage, presentation, disclosure, and dissemination of data.