Signs at a demonstration held on Human Rights Day in Sydney, Australia. Human rights are an irreducible, non-negotiable framework for assessing wellbeing, but how are human rights fulfilment measured? Photo by: Austronesian Expedition / CC BY-NC-ND

EDITOR’S NOTE: Many donors adopt a rights-based approach to their development policies, but how can you measure progress on social and human rights? Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Isobel Coleman discusses an index she has been working on from objective survey data collected by official statistical agencies.

Unlike other economic and social metrics of performance, human rights, as codified in international human rights laws, are an irreducible, non-negotiable framework for assessing wellbeing.

Adopted by countries through binding international treaties, human rights represent an explicit consensus between countries about fundamental rights and obligations. Not only have world leaders and international organizations agreed that human rights norms should be binding legal commitments; domestic parliaments have also debated and ratified human rights treaties, which reflect and build upon moral and ethical norms fundamental to free societies. A rights-based approach to development differs fundamentally from other approaches because the rights of the few cannot be sacrificed to improve the wellbeing of the greater population. In other words, governments cannot throw a few people under the bus in order to better the lot of everyone else.

The economic, social, and cultural rights enshrined in international human rights law bear a resemblance to other alternatives measurements of human progress and wellbeing. Various treaties, including the International Covenant of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the American Convention on Human Rights, among others, obligate countries to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights; and to progressively realize economic and social rights gradually based on available resources. These treaties and conventions demand states provide their citizens with adequate access to food, education, healthcare, housing, work, and social security; and prohibit discrimination between people and groups.

These laudable goals, but they are difficult to measure. Thus, over the past five years, I have been working with a number of colleagues to develop a Social & Economic Rights Fulfillment Index, which measures the performance of countries and provinces on their fulfillment of economic and social rights obligations, based on objective survey data collected by official statistical agencies.

The project has been challenging. States are not obligated to immediately fulfill all guaranteed economic and social rights to the greatest extent possible. But over time, they must progressively realize these rights by devoting the maximum of available resources toward their fulfillment. Inherent in this model is the assumption that a government’s ability to fulfill rights commitments depends on the amount level of resources available in the country. Although understandable, the progressive realization formulation has long complicated and frustrated efforts to hold countries’ accountable for fulfillment of rights obligations. Without an evidence-base for assessing performance, states can escape from their human rights obligations by claiming inadequate resources.

This “resource constraints” excuse does not hold up to the evidence. Some countries with similar income levels perform very differently in terms of rights fulfillment. For example, Gambia, with a per capita income of $1,900, has a primary school enrollment rate of only eighty-one percent, but Tanzania, with a roughly equivalent (and even lower) income of $1,600, has enrollment rates above ninety-four percent. The SERF Index disqualifies the resource excuse by allowing apples-to-apples comparisons across countries using an evidence-based Achievement Possibilities Frontier to estimate states’ social and economic rights obligations.

Social and economic rights fulfillment is only one aspect of wellbeing and cannot replace other important metrics of countries’ progress and performance, such as those discussed in my previous blog posts. But as a normative framework firmly grounded in both longstanding ethical imperatives and international law, human rights fulfillment should be recognized as a useful measure of countries’ status and progress, especially as the global community reexamines the fundamental meaning of development.

Edited for style and republished with permission from the Council on Foreign Relations. Read the original article.

About the author

  • Devex Editor

    Thanks a lot for your interest in Devex News. To share news and views, story ideas and press releases, please email We look forward to hearing from you.