Creating visual benchmarks for human rights practice

By Andrés Castro*


The human rights community is accustomed to text format, but the use of graphs and other visual tools allows us to communicate our arguments in a much more concise and effective manner. It also helps us learn; for example, to better understand the many faces of inequality in the world, as Sergio Chaparro points out in a previous post. And this is why they are an essential tool for monitoring the performance of countries that have committed to take measures using the maximum of available resources in order to progressively achieve the realization of economic, social and cultural rights.

The purpose of this entry is to share some simple ideas about how we can make better use of visual quantitative analyses, and thus strengthen the human rights agenda. The argument is simple, but important: when we create or use a graph, ultimately we are only making explicit or implicit comparisons.The trick is to know what the relevant comparisons are.

For example, let us say that we are interested in monitoring the progressive development of the right to health in Colombia. We can quickly go to the World Bank’s webpage and see how “life expectancy at birth” (which is just one of several indicators) has changed in recent years. In the following graph, if the line were horizontal or declining, we would have devastating evidence that the country is not fulfilling its obligation to progressively realize the right to health. Here the benchmark is implied: a horizontal or decreasing line. And while the line goes up, it seems that we have no reason to alarm ourselves.

This image is important, but quite insufficient since most of the time we need to make explicit comparisons. Yes, the line is rising, but is it rising rapidly enough? It is very difficult to assess country performance without comparing it to what happens in the rest of the region. The following graph does this and presents new information: During the 1980s, Colombia performed above average, but in recent years it has begun to lag slightly. This may not be enough for international agencies to be alarmed, but Colombians will undoubtedly think that their average (and slightly lagging) performance is troubling.

This image, however, still remains very inadequate. Especially since the commitments of the states are subject to the “maximum of available resources” and this comparison does not say anything about it. One would expect, then, that the life expectancy at birth is greater in those countries that have more resources.

The following chart tries to take this into account. Here the point of comparison is created from what is known as a “regression line”, which shows the life expectancy at birth that we would expect to see after taking into account the availability of resources in each country (measured in terms of GDP per capita). It’s like a new average, but one that changes linearly when resource availability is taken into account. And this line is our new point of reference: the countries below the line perform below average (Bolivia, Belize, Venezuela) and those above it perform above average (Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Nicaragua).


Colombia is slightly below this new reference point. So a next step for researchers could be to ask how much money the Colombian government is spending to fund the health system and how it compares with other countries in the region. Although the fact that there is a stagnation of public spending on health in relation to other countries does not in itself constitute a violation of the right to health, it does put states states in the difficult position of having to explain themselves.

This type of information can be consulted again on the World Bank webpage in just a few seconds. The following graph shows public expenditure on health (as % of GDP) in nine Latin American countries. Here Colombia ranks third, below Costa Rica and Uruguay. Thus, the lagging performance of the Colombian health system is likely to be the result of other factors such as institutional design, cost efficiency, or even poor performance in the advancement of other rights (eg housing, education, food). The virtue of this type of analysis is that it tells us where it is worth looking for.

However, although this type of analysis is important, it has the problem of being too descriptive. Think about when you tried to explain to your parents that they shouldn’t worry about a bad grade in school because the other kids had done even worse. For my parents, that reasoning was unacceptable. So why should we – who deal with more serious issues – have to settle for a similar reasoning? Why should we settle for being above average? What I mean by this is that there must be some way of incorporating the normative principles of the human rights framework into the visual comparisons we make.

Unfortunately, so far, there are very few efforts in this direction. The challenge is very difficult since it involves taking these principles and creating different benchmarks that can be expressed visually. It is true that there are some exceptions, such as the important recent work of Professor Sakiko Fukuda-Parr and her collaborators (which I will discuss in a future post). But much remains to be done. So we have to be willing to open our repertoire of tools (and also to learn from the expertise of other actors as María Paula Ángel said in a recent entry ). Otherwise, we are not using the “maximum available resources” to advance our agenda.


* Andrés Castro is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia).

Photo credit: Vin on the move