by Madi Ro
One of the international community’s persistent concerns regards the protection of citizens’ social and economic rights. Since the adoption of the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, there has been global commitment to fulfill the rights that each individual is recognized to be born with. While these rights originally pertained to basic freedoms such as life, liberty, and equality, they have now also expanded to include social and economic rights.
But what are social and economic rights, exactly? And how do we measure society’s performance in its protection of those rights? How do we compare different countries’ performances?
Dr. Terra Lawson-Remer provides answers to these questions in her new book, Fulfilling Social and Economic Rights. She is a founding member and managing partner for the Catalyst Project and a faculty fellow at UCSD’s School of Global Policy and Strategy (GPS). In her special talk at UCSD, she outlined her and her team’s major solutions and findings regarding these questions.
The Social and Economic Rights Fulfillment Index (SERF) is an index that her team created to measure a country’s provision and protection of social and economic rights, which include the right to food, health care, education, work, and social security. The index measures how well a country is doing given the resources that they have, making it easier to compare a country like the United States with a country like Ghana, for instance.
The distinguishing aspect of Dr. Lawson-Remer and her team’s work is the inclusion of national resources in the calculations, and they do not solely use a country’s nominal wealth to measure its ability and performance. This adds a whole new dimension to keeping countries accountable. Other rankings that do not include a country’s given resources rank Jordan and Turkey similarly as “medium performers”. However, in the SERF Index, Jordan ranks 6th overall, while Turkey comes in 87th.
Her book further details how each resource is measured and why it was selected as a part of the index. She explains that some basic rights can actually be achieved during a country’s development process, requiring fewer resources than other countries. However, many countries–both rich and poor–are not meeting their expected levels of rights fulfillment. The worst-performing country is Equatorial Guinea, meeting only 16% of its overall obligations.
Through further analysis of the SERF index results and ratings for each country, her book also explores performance comparisons between democracies and autocracies. While it is possible for an autocratic state to achieve a high score on the index, there is far more fluctuation in scores among autocracies than among democracies.
Dr. Lawson-Remer described her work as “policy agnostic,” stating that her work is not meant to provide a list of one-size-fits-all policy packages for all countries. Although she also explores the limitations of the impact of international human rights treaties on social and economic rights fulfillment, she hopes that her work serves as an impetus for improvement in the areas of food accessibility, health care, education, work conditions, and social security. She urges states to fully employ all their means and resources ─ legal, administrative, judicial, economic, social, and educational ─ in order to further protect and provide these rights for their citizens.
Her work is not so much about evaluating how well countries are doing as it is about providing a more equitable system of evaluation. It has the potential to better guide countries in fulfilling these rights, encouraging those with fewer resources to not compare themselves to the same standards as rich countries, and alerting those with more resources to use them wisely.
Dr. Lawson-Remer ultimately hopes that the SERF index will push countries to keep one another accountable by paving a way for them to do so. Despite obvious drawbacks to encouraging international action and treaties, the index serves as a vital research tool to better understand the relationship between governments and their citizens, and how our leaders can better serve their people.
Image by UCSD School of Global Policy & Strategy