By Erica Murphy (Right to Education Initiative), Mihir Mankad (Center for Economic and Social Rights), and Francesca Feruglio (ESCR-Net Secretariat) on behalf of the Monitoring Working Group of ESCR-Net.*
There is increasing recognition that data—relevant and reliable data—are central to achieving Agenda 2030 and advancing the realisation of human rights. We need data to inform laws and policies, improve decision-making, ensure sufficient resource allocation, monitor progress and identify gaps, and ensure accountability. However, more data alone will not do the job. We need more of the right kinds of data collected in the right kinds of ways. Leaving no one behind—and meeting the targets for SDG 4 and the wider Education 2030 Agenda—requires taking a human rights based approach to data. This means taking everyone into account in a way that puts people at the centre of how they are counted.
A human rights-based approach to data
States have legal human rights obligations related to data that other frameworks such as the SDGs must take into account. These obligations have two key elements: States must collect data to facilitate human rights implementation and also ensure that any data they collect is done so in a human rights compliant way.
There are also instrumental reasons for adopting a human rights based approach to data. It can help correct imbalances in power with a view to enabling the participation of affected communities; increase data accuracy; center policymaking on people's lived experiences and perspectives rather than serving the interests of powerful actors; protect security and privacy; and improve accountability.
The ESCR-Net Monitoring Working Group is therefore calling for data production, collection, analysis, and use to be aligned with human rights. In line with our core principles, we believe that grassroots groups and movements should be at the centre of decisions affecting development and human rights and that data should support their visions of development and social justice. To facilitate this, we are developing a clear set of principles to be published later this year that will provide practical guidance on how to carry out rights-based monitoring.
Challenging the status quo
As a network with over 280 members across 75 countries, we have observed that the existing narratives and approaches to global development data often bear little connection to what human rights say about data.
Data ultimately reflect certain values and choices. States—as the primary data collectors and users—decide what kinds to collect, when, and for what purposes. They have the power to decide what literally counts. This can cause problems for several reasons.
First, states value large-scale, quantitative data over community-centered, qualitative data because the information is perceived to be more objective and credible. There is no denying that quantitative data are necessary, particularly for demonstrating change over time, understanding the scale of a problem, and because the information can be standardised and compared internationally. This is why 10 out of the 11 SDG 4 indicators are quantitative. However exclusive reliance on it reduces people and problems to numbers. Qualitative data, such as testimonies, narratives, and interviews, are also necessary from a human rights perspective. This type of information can help us to better understand the underlying reasons and contexts while ensuring that the voices, experiences, and priorities of affected communities are adequately counted.
Second, current approaches to data for global development largely marginalise the people about and for whom the data are collected. More often than not, affected communities don’t participate in the production of data, or if they do, this participation can be a box-ticking exercise. As a result, such approaches ignore the needs, experiences, knowledge, and ideas of affected communities and tend to disregard what they value as important. Governments then use this information to make policy decisions without taking into account the experiences of the very people who should be benefiting from this process.
Third, partly as a result of the issues described above, the right kind of data—that would make it possible to assess states’ progress in fulfilling human rights obligations, both in terms of the steps taken and the outcomes achieved—is very often not collected or made available.
In January 2019, over 20 member organizations of ESCR-Net met to discuss the role of data in advancing economic and social rights as well as gaps in existing data practices. We all agreed on the need to challenge dominant narratives around what kinds of information counts as legitimate and to propose a powerful vision for a human rights-based approach to data. As a first step, we have started to collectively identify an initial set of principles, based on human rights law:
We are also considering issues around relevance and quality of data as well as transparency and accountability. The next step is to show how these principles can be operationalised and translated into concrete guidance for states and any actor who is involved in monitoring.
The High-Level Political Forum in New York is focusing on monitoring progress towards SDG 4, primarily by using data for just 11 indicators. We know this is not enough. There is also a critical need for better, more relevant data and rights based indicators if we want to achieve SDG 4 in a way that puts people, their lived experiences, perspectives, priorities at the forefront. This is in line with the collective call to support more and better data launched by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics along with 38 organizations around the world. We must change our notion of development as something top-down to a democratic, inclusive process grounded in human rights. We hope that our principles will contribute to this vision by dismantling existing dominant narratives around data that serve to exclude and de-legitimise those whose development they purportedly seek to advance.
Stay tuned for more information as we publish these principles later this year at ESCR-Net Monitoring.
*The International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR-Net) connects over 280 members—social movements, organizations, and individuals—across 75 countries and works to build a global movement to make human rights and social justice a reality for all.
 According to the United Nations, ‘human rights based approach is a conceptual framework for the process of human development that is normatively based on international human rights standards and operationally directed to promoting and protecting human rights. It seeks to analyse inequalities which lie at the heart of development problems and redress discriminatory practices and unjust distributions of power that impede development progress.’ (See https://hrbaportal.org/faq/what-is-a-human-rights-based-approach, last accessed on 26 July 2019.)