Thinking in Bubbles: Human Rights, Inequality and Poverty

By Sergio Chaparro Hernández*


This is the case of Gapminder, an enormous online database that compares countries’ performance on hundreds of indicators, over long periods of time, using different colored bubbles of varying sizes to represent magnitudes or other characteristics. It is a non-profit, modern “museum,” which helps make the world more understandable and promotes human development through knowledge. For the human rights community, it can also be a powerful tool to empirically substantiate their analysis, and even help respond some of its hardest questions in a visual and innovative way.

Hans Rosling, one of the initiative’s founders, periodically publishes videos in which he shows the potential of statistics to respond to questions, like if it is possible to eradicate world poverty by 2030, or to contradict stereotypes, such as the idea that poor countries cannot reach the levels of rich ones using certain public policies. These videos also serve as social experiments in which, for example, Rosling has proven that we tend to underestimate process in social indicators and fail to acknowledge the impressive transformation the world has seen in terms of quality of life in the past two centuries, as the following graph shows. This graph shows a comparison between infant mortality rates of children under five (per 1000 live births, on the vertical axis), between 1800 and 2015, classifying countries by their level of income per capital (horizontal axis). Each circle represents a country: the color represents the continent to which it belongs, and its diameter reflects the size of its population.

Rate of infant mortality and level of income per capita in different countries (1800 vs 2015)

In 1800, infant mortality rates were dramatically higher, reaching nearly 550 per 1000 live births in the territory of Yemen. Even in richer countries, such as the United Kingdom or Holland, 1 in 3 children died before reaching 5 years of age. By contrast, in 2015, there was no country in which more than 16% of children die before this age. The gaps, however, continue to be enormous: while in Angola 157 of every 1000 children die before their fifth birthday, in Iceland that number is two. Inequality between countries, as well as within countries, is extremely high. In Colombia a child under 5 is 4.7 times more likely to die if she is born in the department of Guainía than if she is born in a city like Arauca, while indigenous children are 3 times more likely to die before their fifth birthday than non-indigenous children.

Inequality has increased both in terms of income as well as in some human development indicators. In addition to being unnecessary and unjustifiable as a means to reach other goals (as some attempt to argue), this inequality represents an obstacle to the protection of rights. However, although this concern for inequality has been gaining force in the field of human rights, it faces several challenges to confronting and counteracting it. A first challenge is normative, as aside from the Declaration on the Right to Development, it is not clear that international human rights law explicitly incorporates a concern for income inequality as an intrinsically human rights problem. A second challenge is practical in nature, as it is necessary to find support from experts in other disciplines, States and multilateral institutions, and of course social movements, in order to confront inequality. A third challenge is methodological, and is where tools such as Gapminder, and other statistical techniques generally, can provide an enormous service to human rights activists. Let’s look at an example.

The following graph shows the homicide rate per 100,000 inhabitants according to the level of inequality (measured by the Gini index along the vertical axis, an indicator in which 0 reflects a perfectly equitable society, and 1 represents the most extreme inequality) and by income level (measured by the GDP per capita on the horizontal axis). The diameter of the circles reflects each country’s homicide rate in 2005 (the larger the circle, the larger the homicide rate), and the color represents the continent to which each country belongs.

Homicide rate in various countries classified by the level of inequality and income per capita. (2005)

Segment A shows how the homicide rate changes in more equitable countries as income level changes. And segment B shows how the homicide rate changes in the wealthiest countries when inequality changes. While in the countries in segment A the circle size tends to be small and similar (which is to say that the homicide rate is low and homogenous even when the income level changes), with the exception of the poorest countries in Africa, for those in segment B, which are the wealthiest, it is much clearer that as inequality increases, the circle size (the homicide rate) also increases. This means that violent homicides increase more as inequality increases than when poverty levels increase.

With econometrics, and isolating the influence of other factors, these graphic intuitions could be reflected in relevant numerical indicators to incorporate concern for inequality into a rights perspective. In this way, it would be possible to calculate the cost in terms of a greater risk to the right to life (meaning how much the probability of being a victim of a violent homicide) of living in a more unequal society, given a specific income level. In other words, how much does inequality cost in terms of increased homicide rates?

The use of statistical methods allows us to more strongly defend the idea that it is not possible to achieve substantial progress in the protection of rights (such as the right to life or others) if there is not substantial progress combating inequality.


*Sergio Chaparro Hernández is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice, and Society (Dejusticia).