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By Koldo Casla and Imogen Richmond-Bishop


This piece was published in the blog of the Center for Economic and Social Rights as an ‘Opera Story’.

Koldo Casla is the Policy Director of Just Fair and a Research Associate at the Institute of Health and Society (Newcastle University). Just Fair works to brings social justice and human rights together and to ensure that UK law, policy and practice complies with international human rights obligations.

Imogen Richmond-Bishop is the Right to Food Project Coordinator of Sustain UK. Sustain advocates for food and agriculture policies and practices that enhance the health and welfare of people and animals, improve the working and living environment, enrich society and culture and promote equity.

Koldo and Imogen share some thoughts on OPERA, how it can be used to understand human rights situations in a national context, and potential pitfalls of making use of quantitative information for human rights advocacy.

In our view, OPERA is the most developed framework to monitor the fulfilment of socio-economic rights. We want to share one initiative and three takeaways related to OPERA.

First, the initiative. In partnership with Nourish Scotland, Just Fair, the Institute of Health and Society of Newcastle University, and the Baring Foundation, Sustain is building a network to enhance the right to food in Britain.

The OPERA framework is helping us generate a snapshot of the enjoyment and the progressive implementation of the right to food in our country, a picture that we need to paint in order to advocate for the change we want to see in society.

Using OPERA, our work has not only identified gaps in policy and legislation, but also gaps in data collection. National data collection is necessary to measure progress or retrogression of rights. However, unlike many other countries in the Global North and despite public pressure, the UK government does not measure household food insecurity on a national scale. However, independent research has supported claims that recent tax and welfare reforms have caused an increase in poverty and destitution, including food insecurity.

Not everyone is affected equally by policy changes. Disaggregated studies indicate that the prevalence of malnutrition upon admission to hospital was highest in women over 65, and people with disabilities and mental health issues are among the most likely to be accessing emergency food aid.

Another gap OPERA helped identify is the lack of open and active participation in the development of policy and legislation. Organised civil society is bridging this gap through projects like the Food Power Programme, which highlights the importance of involving experts by experience to develop effective long-term solutions to tackle food poverty.

There are three main takeaways from this work and other examples that we would like to share with the hope that they inform the future development of OPERA:

Takeaway No. 1. We can live with some of the limitations of quantitative research as long as we acknowledge them. Quantification adds value to human rights by allowing advocates to identify and describe systemic deprivations. The Sustainable Development Goal 10, which requires a reduction of inequalities both between and within countries, is a good example. Assessing material inequalities is contentious; conclusions are fairly contingent on whether one looks at relative or absolute low income, income or wealth inequality, past trends or future projections, for example.

Just Fair has authored the chapter on SDG10 in the first ever review of the UK’s realisation of the SDGs. Whatever source and focus, transparency is mandatory. For example, relying on publicly available datasets, the thorough cumulative impact assessment by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (the national human rights institution of England, Wales and partly of Scotland also) has shown that the poor have borne the cost of tax and social security reforms since 2012. The private Institute for Fiscal Studies has reached similar conclusions.

Takeaway No. 2. Comparative analyses based on a large number of cases (large-N) are valuable, but should be complemented with studies by independent researchers and civil society. As OPERA suggests, data about outcomes, efforts and resources could be examined chronologically, against past record.

Geographical comparisons are also useful. The Human Rights Measurement Initiative is an exciting project that seeks to build a global dataset to measure the curvier yet thrilling path of progressive realisation, for example. However, more work is required to provide an accurate comparison of the level of enjoyment of socio-economic rights. When large-N studies rely on datasets that are comparable worldwide there is a risk of falling on lowest common denominators. And data that is not disaggregated by the usual grounds of discrimination should be avoided as this information is essential to test the human rights compliance of government policies such as austerity.

Takeaway No. 3. Quantitative analysis works best when it has a human face. A recent report by the Children’s Rights Alliance of England explains why children should not be housed in temporary accommodation for extended periods. It draws heavily on the themes and recommendations identified by children experiencing homelessness. With the support of the Edinburgh Tenants Federation and the Scottish Human Rights Commission, social tenants have identified indicators and benchmarks they consider most relevant to evaluate the Council’s fulfilment of their right to adequate housing. In Spain, Amnesty International combined data analysis with more than 300 interviews to show the human impact of austerity on the public health system, mortgages and rental evictions.

Indicators and benchmarks provide the necessary facts and figures. Quantitative data is the body, but every body needs a face. There is no better way to defend social rights than to hand a megaphone to the people that are most affected by inequality, public spending cuts and social exclusion. The OPERA analytical framework gives human rights advocates the opportunity to louden this voice with their work. 

This is the second blog in our “OPERA Stories” series highlighting the work of our partners and allies and exploring the different ways they’ve used OPERA, our analytic framework, to support rights-claiming and accountability in different contexts.