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Reclaiming the Narrative: Using Data to Shift Power for Economic and Social Rights

Human rights can help us examine how power is reproduced in the production, collection, and use of data. They also suggest how we can correct these imbalances and distortions. We are engaging in collective efforts to develop data principles for economic, social, and cultural rights.

By Mihir Mankad, CESR's Program Officer

If we want to change how the world works, we need to use data. What we choose to count and measure to inform decisions has the power to make visible the struggles of communities or hide them completely. This is why data matters. Recently, I joined members of the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Network (ESCR-Net) Monitoring Working Group in leading a session at the Data Justice Conference organized by the Data Justice Lab at Cardiff University. Titled “Reclaiming the Narrative”, the session shared the work behind a collective position on data for economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR) that we’ve been jointly developing over the last two years.

The push to develop a set of principles on the role data plays in realizing economic and social rights emerges from common frustrations, on the one hand, and shared recognition, on the other. The frustrations stem, first, from a basic lack of data relevant to ESCR, and second, questions about its reliability and quality if it does exist. The recognition is that data, particularly data from affected communities themselves, is essential for understanding and addressing the problems that we see in our work every day.

We agreed on the need for us to challenge the dominant narratives around what kinds of data, and therefore people, count as legitimate. Through the collective position, we wanted to find a way to re-center conversations about data around affected communities and their lived experiences. Here, I share some reflections on what the dominant narratives about data have been in the development field and some of the steps we need to take to reclaim it. 

Data is political

We exist in the most “data-fied” time in history. Whether it’s Amazon tracking your shopping preferences or the government conducting a national census. But decisions about how data is gathered and used tend to invisibilize marginalized and disadvantaged groups. For example, women and girls, and particular issues affecting them, are often still excluded in official data, something known as the gender data gap. During the Covid-19 pandemic, many European countries failed to collect health data disaggregated by race, leaving completely unknown the pandemic’s disparate impact.
The politics of data gets further hidden when data is used to mask difficult political choices, by presenting them as technical in nature. The “objectivity” of data-driven decision making often silences other voices—intentionally or not. This allows those in power to sidestep more systemic problems, such as inequality, racism, patriarchy, in which they may be implicated.
This is not a new problem. Data has always been inherently political. The first step in ensuring that data serves to enhance human dignity is to recognize this fact. Colonial powers claimed to collect “scientific” information about their colonial subjects for the purposes of their betterment. Though we know the reality was the opposite. Today’s global development regime isn’t acting in the same bad faith. Yet, it continues to adopt a position on data that is implicitly patriarchal and neocolonial. Privileging “expert” analysis over the knowledge and experience of affected communities effectively designates it as “second class” or inferior information. This further sidelines the very communities it purports to serve. The result is a significant imbalance in power in policy making and therefore over people’s lives.

To ensure everyone can have a say in decisions affecting their lives, especially communities that have been marginalized, we also need to redistribute power in the way data is produced, collected, and used. To do this, we need to take steps to demystify and democratize data. This historical legacy of oppressive data practices, and what we know about how data operates today, means we must understand and closely scrutinize how data is produced, collected and used. Though such practices are framed as objective, they will not necessarily be just. While the feminist principle of “what gets counted, counts” should be our starting point, we also need ask questions about who decides what gets counted and how it gets counted.

Data for Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights

None of this is to say that there isn’t a place for quantitative, large scale, or other similar forms of data. At CESR, we’ve always considered data to be essential in addressing systemic ESCR problems. Such information plays a critical role in describing how communities’ basic rights may be denied. Disaggregated data can reveal where they may face discrimination. Time-series data can show how the situation may be changing over time. But, without being supported by and used in tandem with data from the communities themselves, it won’t get us very far in understanding the lived realities behind the numbers.

Human rights standards and principles—which codify values such as dignity, equity, and fairness— can serve as a tool to identify and examine the ways in which power is reproduced in the production, collection and use of data. It also suggests ways in which we may begin to correct these imbalances and distortions. We’ve been working with both the human rights and data justice communities for many years to do this in different ways. This includes efforts to democratize data collection practices, increase literacy on human rights data among partners and allies, and demystify budgetary and other economic data. Our analytical framework, OPERA, is an important tool in this regard. It gives activists an overarching structure to interrogate and bring together a broad range of different types of data, to understand economic and social rights issues more systematically.

This is all critical because in order to shift what we value we need to re-prioritizing what we count. For example, in our work on envisioning a rights-based economy we unpack why gross domestic product (GDP), which is the main way countries measure economic growth, isn't great if you are concerned about actually measuring human well-being. You can increase GDP by engaging in a range of activities, like building a jail or cutting down a forest, that might have a “positive” impact on economic numbers, but very likely have a harmful impact on people’s economic and social rights. By moving away from GDP and similar measures, and instead using metrics that are more closely aligned with human rights, we can begin to shift people’s understanding of how our economies can serve people’s rights and the planet.

Our ongoing contribution to the collective position and the work surrounding it has been an opportunity to build on this data-related work. There will be more to say about it once it’s published later this summer. But the approach the collective position takes is already informing much of our work. It’s an important new resource for building collective power, to transform our economies to realize people’s rights and put the planet first.