OPERA Stories: Using metrics to reframe the narrative about “progress” in Egypt

An interview with Heba Khalil of the Social Justice Platform
Heba Khalil is a longstanding collaborator with CESR, most recently on the Egypt Social Progress Indicators. She is a PhD student at the University of Illinois and a researcher with the Social Justice Platform (SJP) in Egypt. Combining interdisciplinary research methods from economics, political science, anthropology, sociology and field research, the researchers affiliated with SJP analyze social and economic structures in Egypt in ways that seek to inspire social change. 
Heba coauthored a chapter with CESR’s Allison Corkery titled “Do Metrics Matter? Accountability for Economic and Social Rights in Post-Revolution Egypt” in the book Economic and Social Rights in a Neoliberal World, published by Cambridge University Press in June 2018. The chapter explores whether, how, and in what conditions integrating quantification in human rights advocacy can help build civil-society power to challenge neoliberalism. It discusses a number of initiatives where Egyptian civil society groups used such tactics, focusing in particular on the Egypt Social Progress Indicators (ESPI).
ESPI is a set of more than 80 indicators reflecting the state of social and economic progress in Egypt that CESR helped develop with its Egyptian partners. Covering six thematic areas—health, education, urbanization; food, water and agricultural land; labor; and economic policy—the indicators present an alternative rights-based socioeconomic narrative and provide a practical tool for evidence-based policymaking. 
Heba shared with CESR her thoughts about the role CESR’s rights monitoring framework OPERA played in developing ESPI, as well as some insights from the chapter on metrics. This interview has been lightly edited for readability and context.
What are the accountability challenges that ESPI responds to?  
The neoliberal policies pursued since the popular uprisings that led to Mubarak’s resignation in 2011 betrayed popular demands for social justice and economic prosperity. But, they equally affected Egypt’s accountability system. Capturing Parliament, restricting access to information, criminalizing strikes and protests and curbing access to the judiciary didn’t just coincide with the introduction of budget cuts, privatization, and other austerity measures; they were necessary to make the introduction of such regressive policies possible. This dismantling of the country’s accountability system makes it difficult to challenge neoliberal policies, and to dispute the dominant narrative that the economy has turned a corner and the country is recovering from its economic woes.  
As we discuss in the chapter, social accountability tactics often mimic the functions of formal accountability mechanisms. Indicators are a tool that, as a number of commentators have noted, are often associated with a narrow, neoliberal approach to accountability. ESPI intentionally mimics that tool, as it speaks in a “language” that often resonates with and is persuasive to government officials and other key influencers. However, it does so in a way that captures the reality on the ground and illustrates the impact of policies on people’s rights.
By focusing on people-centered indicators, we hope to reveal the neoliberal underpinnings of the metrics used by the government and the international financial institutions that support it, such as the widely critiqued Ease of Doing Business Index.
Why did you decide to use OPERA for ESPI?
ESPI translates normative concepts about sustainable development and human rights into clearer, more actionable indicators. It uses a mix of quantitative and qualitative, as well as fact-based and perception-based, indicators. A unique feature of ESPI is that it assigns a score for each indicator, based on a four-color scale, to measure the degree of progress achieved. 
ESPI is guided by OPERA’s four levels of analysis: Outcomes, Policy Efforts, Resources, and Assessment. We decided to use OPERA to select our indicators for a number of reasons. On the one hand, we wanted to be holistic. OPERA ensured we captured various dimensions of social progress and socioeconomic wellbeing. On the other hand, we needed to be focused.  OPERA helped collectively prioritize indicators, in order to identify areas where improvement is most needed.
What did OPERA help ESPI to do?
OPERA helped us strike a good balance between being holistic and focused.  Without having the right kinds of quantitative information—about outcomes, policy efforts and resources—along with qualitative information explaining why certain things are happening, it’s very difficult to make a convincing argument about the legitimacy of certain government actions. For example, our labor indicators look at outcomes, such as the youth unemployment rate. They also look at policy efforts, such as legal protection of the right to strike and action towards providing an adequate minimum wage. 
In writing the chapter, we learned that the use of information has been highlighted as a particular factor that will affect the success of a social accountability initiative. But, there hasn’t been much unpacking of what type of information is needed, or how and when it will be effective. Using OPERA to design ESPI revealed a number of insights about these issues.
For example, we found quantification can be an effective strategy for generating pressure to the degree that it must be taken seriously by the government (i.e. it puts their reputation at risk, with potential practical consequences). This, in turn, is influenced by whether it is picked up by key influencers. The value of quantification to key influencers can rely on many different factors, for example, whether it provides new data not otherwise available; whether it provides reliable, longitudinal, and comparative data; and whether it holds government performance to a particular standard.
However, quantification can risk oversimplifying information, leading to a reductive picture of a situation. To avoid this, ESPI does not aggregate numbers. Rather than creating an index that gives an overall score, ESPI presents the scores for each indicator, grouped by theme, and includes detailed analysis of why each score was given. It allows users to drill down as they navigate the website, with more detail revealed as they do so.
How could OPERA have been more helpful?
I think additional resources on how to develop human rights indicators and benchmarks would support more robust OPERA-based analysis. A key takeaway from ESPI is that information is more engaging when it compares performance to a set standard. The human rights framework is an important standard, but it doesn’t tell us precisely how high or how low particular numbers, percentages, or ratios should be, in order to comply with that standard. Determining this was a big challenge in designing ESPI. In the end, our methodology incorporated a mix of qualitative human rights standards, development commitments and cross-country comparisons. 
CESR developed some resources specifically for ESPI, such as criteria for assessing indicators and approaches for setting benchmarks. If these materials were refined and expanded upon they could prove useful to others seeking to use quantification as one method of social and human rights accountability. 
The continued refinement of tailor-made methodological resources such as those provided by CESR in this case are crucial to developing the indicators and benchmarks that can measure economic and social human rights accountability in a myriad of various governance situations. 
This is the third blog in our “OPERA Stories” series highlighting the work of our partners and exploring the different ways they’ve used OPERA, our economic, social and cultural rights monitoring framework, to support rights-claiming and accountability in different contexts.