Reporting back from the RDF on Human Rights Documentation

/ July 16, 2015

This post is cross-posted from the Center for Economic and Social Rights.

In late March, a number of members and affiliates of the ESCR-Net Working Group on Monitoring Methods participated in the Responsible Data Forum on Human Rights Documentation in Manila. CESR was one of the co-organizers of the Forum, along with the engine room, HURIDOCS, Benetech, and Amnesty International. Molly Land from the Human Rights Institute at the University of Connecticut (USA), Francesca Feruglio from Nazdeek (India), Nikki Gamara from Defend Job (Philippines), and Bibhu Prasad Sahu from Youth for Social Development (India) joined 30 others from across the globe to explore the ethical, privacy and security challenges posed by the use of data and new technologies in human rights documentation. Here, Molly, Francesca and Bibhu talk to CESR about their insights from the forum.

First off, tell us a little background about your experience with human rights documentation.

Francesca: Nazdeek works to assess the implementation of socio-economic policies and document violations of economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR). By and large, this work relies on qualitative data collected through interviews, questionnaires and surveys. Recently, we have also begun collecting quantitative data on maternal health violations using SMS and Ushahidi software.

Molly: Currently, I study and write about the practice of human rights fact-finding, including the use of new technologies in fact-finding and strategies for documenting violations of ESCR. As a researcher, I’ve led fact-finding investigations on issues such as women’s rights, children’s rights, and access to justice in the United States, Kashmir, and Zambia.

Youth for Social Development (YSD) monitors the public service delivery of socio-economic programs, specifically related to the rights to work, food, health, education, water and sanitation, and information. The data we collect is generated via a number of different methods: citizen and community report cards, social audits, and data provided by the government on resource allocation and spending. Much of this information takes a paper form, but increasingly, we have started using digital data collection techniques.

What do you think are some of the unique challenges of using data to document economic, social and cultural rights, compared to civil and political rights?

Molly: The timeframe in which violations take place is a huge challenge in documenting ESCR violations. Because ESCR violations occur over a longer timeframe, relevant indicators need to be tracked over a period of time, to identify patterns that show a clear violation. By contrast, violations of civil and political rights take place in relatively short moments – an individual is turned away from a voting booth or someone is arrested for peacefully speaking out against a government, for example. So that can be documented effectively through “event-based” monitoring.

Bibhu: There is a dearth of government data regarding ESCR. Data is often restricted or limited; even when it is available, it’s riddled with inaccuracies and omissions. Additionally, user-friendly, cost-effective tools for collecting and analyzing ESCR-related data are often not available to grassroots organizations in the global south. Available tools are inappropriate if groups lack the skills and knowledge needed to use them.

Francesca: The language of the norms that underpin ESCR is a challenge. Ideas of ‘dignity’ and ‘adequacy’ are subjective terms, but they need to be applied consistently to ensure the legitimacy of data collected. Poverty is another major barrier: geographic isolation, illiteracy, low levels of education and rights awareness, and low technological know-how are common obstacles to participation by impoverished rights-holders.

Please tell us about your motivations for attending the forum.

Bibhu: For me, the forum was an opportunity to learn about tools for data security, data analysis etc. I was specifically interested in sharing ways to access and use information about government policies, programs, and budgets to assess compliance with ESCR.

Francesca: Nazdeek is a recently established organization with a strong focus on using data to address socioeconomic injustice. Human rights documentation and strong evidence are central components of our capacity building, advocacy, and litigation work and we were eager to learn about creative ways to use data for advocacy from other sectors and parts of the world.

I was hoping to meet others interested in documentation of ESCR and to learn about the techniques they were using to respond to some of the unique needs associated with this work.

Finally, what were your overall impressions of the forum? What were some of the main lessons you took away? What questions would you like to explore further?

Francesca: The RDF struck a good balance between theoretical discussion around responsible data and practical implications, challenges and solutions. This helped in making sure the conversation remained meaningful and solution-oriented, while ensuring an open and honest debate and keeping some questions open. The discussion about participatory approaches to documentation was particularly inspiring and begs for more debate. While everyone agrees we have responsibility to ensure the participation of stakeholders/data users, there are many doubts and uncertainties in how to go about it.

Molly: I thought the forum was very useful and interesting, particularly in terms of the networks it established. I was impressed with the range of projects that I was introduced to and the feedback I received on participatory approaches to monitoring was particularly valuable.

Bibhu: Learning about risk assessments (using a holistic security framework) and participatory workflows was extremely relevant in an ESCR context. The discussion about using technology in a low-tech environment was also very helpful. Additionally, I gained insight on how to use ICT in the presentation of data for advocacy.

You can read more about the discussion and outcomes of the Responsible Data Forum on human rights documentation here.

About the contributor

Tom started out writing and editing for newspapers, consultancies and think tanks on topics including politics and corruption in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, then moved into designing and managing election-related projects in countries including Myanmar, Bangladesh, Rwanda and Bolivia. After getting interested in what data and technology could add in those areas and elsewhere, he made a beeline for The Engine Room. Tom is trying to read all of the Internet, but mostly spends his time picking out useful resources and trends for organisations using technology in their work.

See Tom's Articles

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