Monitoring the SDGs? Find out how Human Rights Measurement Initiative data can help

by Susan Randolph, Co-Founder & Economic and Social Rights Metrics Lead, Human Rights Measurement Initiative (HRMI) and Anne-Marie Brook, Co-founder and Development Lead, Human Rights Measurement Initiative (HRMI) By invitation, Human rights institutions and mechanisms, Thematic human rights issues

There are strong connections between human rights monitoring and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Indeed, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development ‘seeks to realise the human rights of all.’ So it should not come as a surprise to learn that the Human Rights Measurement Initiative (HRMI)’s metrics tracking country performance on the provisions of the core human rights treaties[1] are an important complement to the SDGs.

This post sets out three ways in which HRMI data support comprehensive and robust SDG reporting:

  • First, a key feature of HRMI’s assessments is that they are independent of governments, whereas the SDGs are designed to be assessed by countries themselves. As such, HRMI’s metrics serve as a valuable source for “shadow reporting” on the SDGs, allowing non-state actors to raise issues that states themselves may be ignoring or underplaying in their assessments.
  • Second, HRMI’s award-winning methodology[2] for measuring country performance on food, education, health, housing and work, brings something very unique to the assessment process. Everyone knows that it is easier for a rich country to get good education outcomes than it is for a low or middle-income country, so simply assessing each country against the same benchmarks doesn’t hold them to account equally well. Instead, HRMI assesses them relative to benchmarks that take into account each country’s level of economic development. In other words, the methodology incorporates the idea of progressive realisation, shedding light on how effectively each country is using its available resources to achieve the SDG (or other human right) indicator concerned. This means that:
    • Using HRMI’s economic and social rights data will allow you to distinguish between countries that are doing poorly because they are not using their resources well, versus those that are doing the best they can with their available resources but would require additional income, development aid or technical assistance to do better.
    • It will also allow you to identify the extent of the additional resources required to enable resource constrained countries to reach the different SDGs.
  • Third, we note that the SDG framework has very few indicators available for monitoring Goal 16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions). HRMI’s civil and political rights data can help you to fill this gap. Below we elaborate each of these points.

An introduction to HRMI data

HRMI’s dataset so far includes measures of 12 internationally recognised human rights acknowledged by UN member states and defined according to the International Bill of Human Rights.

Metrics for 5 economic and social rights (ESRs) – the rights to food, education, health, housing and work/social security – are produced using publicly available statistics, and are available for up to 180 countries, depending on the right. URG and the HRMI team believe that the ESR data are likely to be of significant interest to mission representatives, due to their strong and direct links with SDG goals 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10 and 11.

Using a completely different methodology, HRMI also produces metrics for 7 civil and political rights: freedom of opinion and expression, assembly and association, political participation, and the freedom from torture, execution, disappearance and arbitrary arrest. These data relate strongly to SDG 16, where they can help to fill data gaps and allow more comprehensive monitoring. Because publicly available statistics are not available for these rights, HRMI collects data via a detailed multi-lingual expert survey that is filled out by human rights practitioners such as lawyers, researchers and advocates. The 2019 dataset includes civil and political rights scores for 19 countries: Angola, Australia, Brazil, DRC, Fiji, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Liberia, Mexico, Mozambique, Nepal, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, United Kingdom, United States, Venezuela, and Vietnam.

Delving deeper into how to use HRMI’s economic and social rights data

HRMI’s economic and social rights metrics are constructed from publicly available data published by international organisations such as UNESCO, the FAO, the OECD, and the Luxembourg Income Study. Many of the indicators HRMI uses to assess the different economic and social rights are the exact same indicators used to assess the SDG targets (as shown in Table 1 at the bottom of this blog post).

To illustrate, let’s look at African Country A’s score on the right to food, which is assessed using a bellwether indicator: the percentage of children under 5 who are not stunted.

Figures 1 and 2 below show African Country A’s performance measured against two benchmarks: the ‘income adjusted’ benchmark and the ‘global best’ benchmark.  The income adjusted benchmark is the same one used in the construction of the award winning SERF Index. It evaluates each country’s performance relative to the best outcomes other countries have achieved at that country’s per capita income level. African Country A’s score on the income adjusted benchmark shows how effectively the country is using its current resources to achieve that right or goal. By contrast, the global best benchmark is the benchmark reflecting the best outcomes of other countries at any income level and is set at the maximum enjoyment level of the right aspect feasible given current knowledge. The difference in the benchmarks can give us insight into the level of resources that would be required to enable the country concerned to fully realise the right or goal concerned.

Figure 1 shows that African Country A gets a score of 100% on the income adjusted benchmark. This indicates that this country is doing as well at ensuring children are not stunted as any country has done at that country’s very low GDP per capita income level.

Figure 1: African Country A’s-Right to food score using the income adjusted benchmark

Figure 2: African Country A’s-Right to food score using the global best benchmark

However, its score of 55% on the global best benchmark (Figure 2) indicates it is only doing 55% as well as countries that are not resource constrained. Clearly, the conclusion is that this country is using its available meagre resources effectively, but it would need substantial additional resources to eliminate child stunting, and ensure that all children are receiving adequate food and nutrition.

Let’s now consider a country that is not using its available resources effectively. Figure 3 shows that Asian Country B’s income-adjusted score on the right to food is only 48% while Figure 4 shows that its global best score is only slightly lower at 46%. For this country, the conclusion is that by using its available resources more effectively, it should be able to nearly eliminate child stunting without requiring additional resources.

Figure 3:  Asian Country B-Right to food score using income-adjusted benchmark

Figure 4:  Asian Country B-Right to food score using global best benchmark

HRMI’s database is freely available at Country progress in meeting the SDGs concordant with HRMI’s ESR indicators can readily be tracked using either the income adjusted or global best standard over the past decade.

To provide an example of progress over time, Figure 5 below shows Asian Country C’s progress on one indicator relevant to SDG 4. Target 4.1 is focused on ensuring all children have access to secondary school (‘by 2030 ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes’). This chart shows that although Asian Country C has made considerable progress, the fact that its score remains well below 100% tells us that much more could be done, even at its current per capita income level.

Figure 5:  Asian Country C—Access to Secondary School

Using HRMI’s civil and political rights data to help monitor SDG 16

HRMI’s civil and political rights (CPR) data directly align with SDG 16, and in particular those targets focused on providing access to justice for all and building effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels. HRMI CPR data are currently available for 19 countries and the goal is to cover all countries as soon as funding permits. The indicators cover three empowerment rights, and four rights tracking people’s safety from state abuse. To give an example, Figure 6 shows Western Country D’s scores on the four aspects of safety from the state. Countries are scored on a 10 point scale on each right where a higher score implies better performance. Uncertainty about each country’s precise score is represented by uncertainty bands: the 80% certainty band is shown by the purple bar while the mid-point score shown is the best estimate of the country’s performance.  These scores, and the country comparisons available on the HRMI data portal, highlight that this country’s performance on SDG 16 is seriously lacking in several regards.

Figure 6:  Western Country D—Scores on safety from the state

Focus on gender equality and vulnerable populations

As is consistent with the International Bill of Rights, the SDGs place emphasis on promoting gender equality and protecting vulnerable populations.  HRMI’s metrics incorporate ways of assessing both of these concerns. First, HRMI’s ESR scores on the rights to food, education and health are disaggregated by sex where relevant[3]. Second, the expert survey collects information from survey respondents on which people are at heightened risk of violations of each right. Figure 8 shows this information in the form of a word cloud for the right to freedom from torture. This image tell us that 93% of survey respondents in Western Country D identified people of particular races as being at greater risk of torture or ill-treatment by state agents; 79% of respondents identified refugees and asylum seekers as being at greater risk, and so on.

Figure 8: Western Country D—People at particular risk of having their right to freedom from torture violated

Shared HRMI & SDG indicators

Table 1 below shows the concordance between the indicators HRMI uses to assess countries on their human rights performance and the SDG targets and indicators. Note that because some of the indicators collected for low- and middle- income countries differ from those collected for high-income countries, and because the human rights challenges differ between the two sets of countries, HRMI metrics offer two assessment standards: one most relevant to low- and middle- income countries and the second most relevant to high-income countries. However, all countries are assessed using both standards whenever the underlying data are available. The first column shows the indicators HRMI uses to assess each right for both assessment standards (indicated in columns two and three).  Column 4 shows the related SDG, column 5 shows the SDG target number concerned, and column 6, the specific SDG indicator number where relevant.  The HRMI ESR indicator names are specified in terms of rights enjoyment rather than the deficit. So, for example, while SDG target 2.2.1 is specified as the ‘prevalence of stunting among children under 5’, the HRMI indicator is specified as the ‘percentage children under 5 who are not stunted.’

Table 1: Concordance between HRMI economic and social rights and the Sustainable Development Goals

HRMI Rights and Indicators


Assessment Standard SDG SDG Target Number SDG Indicator Number
High Income Low and Middle
Right to Food 2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
Percentage children under 5 not stunted 2 2.2 2.2.1
Percentage population not moderately or severely food insecure 2 2.1 2.1.2
Right to Education 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere.

5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

Adjusted net primary school enrolment rate & by sex 4, 1 ,5 4.1, 4.3, 1.2, 4.5, 5.1
Net secondary school enrolment rate & by sex 4,  5 4.1, 4.3, 4.5, 5.1
% achieving > level 2 on PISA reading test & by sex 4, 5 4.1, 4.6, 4.5, 5.1 4.1.1
% achieving > level 2 on PISA math test & by sex 4, 5 4.1, 4.6, 4.5, 5.1 4.1.1
% achieving > level 2 on PISA science test & by sex 4 4.1 4.6, 4.5, 5.1
Right to Health 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.

1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere.

5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

Child (under 5) survival rate 3, 1 3.2, 1.2 3.2.1
Age 65 survival rate 3
% newborns not low birth weight 3 3.2, 2.1
% women (15-49) using modern contraceptive methods 3, 5 3.7, 5.6 3.7.1
Right to Housing 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. 1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere.

11: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

% population with basic water access on premises 6, 1, 11 6.1, 6.2, 1.4, 11.1
% population with basic sanitation 6, 1, 11 6.2, 1.4, 11.1
% population.4 with safely managed sanitation 6, 11 6.2, 11.1 6.2.1
Right to Work 1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere.

4: Ensure inclusive and equitable q1uality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

8: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.

% population with >$3.2 (2011 PPP$) per day 1, 8 1.1, 1.2, 8.3, 8.5 1.1.1
% population with >50% median income 1, 10, 8 1.2, 10.2, 10.3, 8.3, 8.5 10.2, 1
% unemployed not long-term unemployed 8, 4 8.5, 4.4


For access to the HRMI data and additional information, visit the HRMI website and the HRMI Data Portal, and see the joint report by HRMI and Universal Rights Group, ‘Is the global situation of human rights improving or deteriorating? Making the case for the empirical measurement of human rights change.’

[1] The core treaties include the International Covenant for Economic Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights.

[2] HRMI co-founder Dr Susan Randolph, and her co-authors Dr Sakiko Fukuda-Parr and Dr Terra Lawson-Remer won the 2019 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order for their work developing the SERF Index methodology HRMI uses to measure countries’ economic and social rights performance. In addition, their book “Fulfilling Economic and Social Rights” (Oxford University Press, 2015) won the 2016 American Political Association award for the best book in human rights scholarship.

[3] These sex-disaggregated scores will be released on HRMI’s website by September.

Featured image taken from Human Rights Measurement Initiative – Our Purpose

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