Current development fads fetishize data, ostensibly for what is called 'evidence'-based-policy-making': Where are you human rights?

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Saturday, 17 July 2021 15:37

Human rights: Food for a couple delusional thoughts  ‘HR, data and social media’


Human Rights Reader 586

[TLDR (too long didn’t read): This Reader is about the fallacy of what data will do/not do for development and what social media will do to you and the implications of this for human rights. For a quick overview, just read the bolded text].


Let me first turn to things close to what you and I too often do


1. Many believe that the more indicators they get endorsed by the ‘international community’, the more financial support they can expect to secure. Collecting enough national data to properly monitor progress on the SDGs is expensive; data collection costs, typically borne by the countries themselves, have been estimated-at at least three times the total cost of official development assistance(!) --and these data do not even mention human rights! (HR)* Worse, external funders’ economists prefer and even demand the use of money-metric measures (some even advocate ‘convenient’ measures such as the prices of a standard McDonald’s hamburger in different countries…). This has been typically accompanied by problematic ranking exercises** instead of focusing on the underlying socio-economic and HR processes and actual progress or lack of it in these processes. Improving such metrics has unfortunately become an-end-in-itself. The consequent ‘tunnel vision’ this creates has meant ignoring other measures, particularly indicators of HR. (Jomo Sundaram)

*: In many childcare centers, usually the main goal of staff members is just to get through the day. There is no long-term goal. However, if clear data on the progress in improving their children-patients’ nutritional status would be analyzed, discussed and used for on-site decision-making, the staff’s motivation could eventually shift toward goal-seeking --but does it?. To draw a crude analogy, knocking little balls into holes in the ground is not interesting, but keeping score and calling it golf can change what it is all about. (George Kent)

**: The first thing we notice and critique about lists is their omissions. (Jorge Luis Borges)


2. The iteration of strictly descriptive and repetitive data on the growing levels of inequalities and inequities has paved the way for even the disappearance of this vital-for-HR-information from SDGs monitoring. This is clearly going in the wrong direction! (Kamran Abassi)


3. Unfortunately, as often is the case, it is power imbalances that do not allow to seriously engage with the challenge of radical modifications in data collection --the SDGs not being an exception. A global culture increasingly confident on the power of technology comes up with linearly conceived algorithmic decision-making so that different hierarchies of values need to be adopted. A world proud of its digital capacity of ‘linking’ data has discovered its communication failure when it comes to identifying real social risks and their potential solutions, as well as discovering its cultural carelessness and its political and scientific lack of foresight when it comes to collecting and sharing data on claim holders’ unmet needs and violated rights …and their possible solutions.


4. Handling and relying on big data*** to monitor, anticipate and measure the yield of the (often more than controversial) interventions produce an international situation of confusion and uncertainty --HR clearly one of the victims of this situation. The retraction of scientific reports or the rejection of papers by major specialized journals, as well as the breach of fundamental rules and practices of independent results’ evaluation (also in regulatory agencies) and the virtual lack of any formal coordination of public health efforts are known elements of the daily chronicles we have become familiar with. The global data that consistently document the extent and the severity of the impact of inequalities worldwide must instead evolve from a strategy of neutral description into an approach centered on looking into the ‘avoidability’ of such inequalities and iniquities!

***: Anyway, research into our evolution shows that the human brain is not inherently wired to make sense of large numbers. (Eve Conant et al, National Geographic)


5. To illustrate, take global population statistics; they are being aggressively collected: How is that helpful, to what agencies, and in what way? Much of that data is already available. Specialists interested in particular aspects of a population problem (e.g., the many dimensions of the hunger problem) will find the data they want, or not. But do that data show the ‘big picture’? I do not see the value of reproducing small slivers of information on the problem (of hunger in this case).


6. Rather than focusing on population statistics, I think HR activists ought to discuss how to contribute to the HR cause and do this with national representatives of HR organizations and advocates, including those that function from outside the country. Ask them how these statistics can be made more useful to activists --thinking of them as your primary potential desirable users. They are the ones who know their countries’ HR situation --not the bureaucrats.


7. Bottom line, indicators/data being collected too often do not impact duty-bearer-accountability-agencies. (Did any of them ever ask for this information in the form it is traditionally being provided to them from outdated/outmoded information systems?) Perhaps HR activists are just hoping that various of these agencies will find HR-relevant data useful. But what is the basis for that hope? Is(are) there any specific agency(ies) in the country that will be interested and can function as a-HR-data-primary-user? My guess is that there are not many such. They will still be asking for numbers; they will not care much about what is going on in other comparable countries. Perhaps HR activists can instead help national HR ombudsmen, HR commissions and HR advocates in ways that help them to devise strategic approaches to dealing with particular, often burning, HR issues in their concrete national circumstances.


8. In short, currently, data collection and analysis efforts are designed mainly to (purportedly) support government policymakers. They are the ones who are supposed to be ‘empowered’ by having good data analyses to inform their decision-making. But are they really using such data…? Furthermore, there is too little effort to provide user-friendly streams of information to public interest civil society watchdog organizations that can and ought to monitor trends in the progressive realization (or not) of HR. (G. Kent)


Let me next turn to things you and I are unconsciously (?) exposed-to


-The social media have been rightfully accused of deepening our culture of discarding --among the discards: HR.

-In a subtle way, big money allows the robotic automatization of people’s motivations by creating wishes and wants that effectively manipulate all of us --and this it does without the manipulation ever coming to the light. (Henri Laborit)


9. Exhibit 1: We live in the whirlwind of the present, in good part subdued by the influence of the hegemonic conventional mass and social media that, instead of communicating, actually control information, miscommunicating and manipulating the population to impose a ‘single-minded thought’ --the only one we ought to think. We are living in yet another totalitarian, HR-deaf/mute historic era. No mass media medium is aseptic; none prioritizes HR concerns.


10. Exhibit 2: Jean Paul Sartre told us that “one is condemned to one’s liberty”, i.e., with one word we can love and with one word we can destroy and bring about so much damage like a weapon can. Politicians plant ideas in people’s (our?) heads and in whole societies with the intention of removing their conscience in what has been called ‘the mono-cropping of the minds’ (think Trump…).**** For this, they use toxic propaganda and words devoid of any real value (including bastardly HR!) that drill into people’s heads. They thus attempt to dilute their own guilt in the collective space by emptying any critical consciousness from the heads of the masses (including the consciousness about ongoing HR violations) thus making their minds de-facto manageable. The challenge here is for us to row-against-the-current of the ‘single-minded thought’ and resist so that nobody imposes these loaded thoughts on us. (Nobel laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel)

****: Unfortunately, the public opinion has not yet realized that it opines what the private opinion wants it to. (Quino)

11. Exhibit 3: Are social networks not a new form of tobacco addiction? If yes, then we perhaps do not need to preach cessation, but instead to politicize them in the direction of HR --and not wait for improved government technical control and regulation of them (e.g., taking off certain messages). Social media are like vacuum cleaners and/or like high speed blenders. I am afraid that the issues here may be addressed as a moral or a purely educational issue and not, deservedly, as HR issues. This will lead to those-in-power believing that they know best for us and particularly for our youth(!). Some day, and I hope it is soon, ‘rebels’ will totally ignore the social media. This is the worst nightmare of Mark Zuckerberg, namely that people forget Facebook. Social networks should and must, that same some day, be used as tools of organization to tackle the political struggles with the objective of redistributing global wealth in our inequitable world. As for now, Capitalism has created a platform being taken advantage by millionaires and right-wing libertarians. (Geert Lovink)


12. So, in short here, given the fact that the hegemonic information media judge and manipulate information way before the justice system catches-on, stopping them will remain our responsibility as activists. (A. Perez Esquivel)

Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City

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Computers have memory, but no memories: (Albino Gomez)


-Computers do not really ‘think’ as we do; they manipulate symbols mindlessly, without understanding what they are doing.

Imagine a man who does not understand Chinese sitting in a room. The room contains a manual that tells the man how to respond to a string of Chinese characters with another string of characters. Someone outside the room slips a sheet of paper with Chinese characters on it under the door. The man finds the right response in the manual, copies it onto a sheet of paper and slips it back under the door. Unknown to the man, he is replying to a question, like “What is your favorite color?” with an appropriate answer, like “Blue.” In this way, he mimics someone who understands Chinese even though he does not know a word. This is what computers do too! They process symbols in ways that simulate human thinking, but they are actually mindless automatons. An ‘intelligent’ program like ‘Siri’ only mimics understanding English; it manipulates bits mindlessly. (John Searle) your social media marketing partner
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