lessons learned: the case for a human rights impact assessment

The institutionalization of human rights policy throughout the past two decades has led to the sweeping operationalization of liberal norms, through human rights policy mechanisms, new legal bodies, and burgeoning non-governmental organizations. The causal impact of Steven Pinker’s “humanitarian revolution” may be slightly overstated, but the heightened prioritization of human rights in various local, national, regional, and international political spheres is apparent. The political consolidated of human rights advocacy has allowed a second normative stage to emerge: the Critical Backlash. Political resistance was one thing, but the evolution of human rights advocacy’s moral critique is quite another. As any active tweeter will tell you, “moral hazard” and “unintended consequences” have become essential characteristics of human rights discourse. The basic concept: rather than maintaining a siloed, moral distance from policy, human rights operate within a political sphere; accordingly, the implementation of rights has unanticipated repercussions and moral ambiguities. Because they occur within an amoral context, human rights policies can lead to immoral consequences, furthering the disenfranchisement and dislocation they intended to address.

The notion of public policy’s nth-order effects is not new. As a recent NYT analysis notes, “moral hazard” emerged as an “obscure insurance term,” rooted in microeconomic principles. In social-service parlance, the hazard is often discussed as self-reliance’s counterpart, underscored by the ethically corrosive implications of welfare, communitarian support, and fiscal bailout. In an international human rights context, the norm’s critics perceive moral hazards within human rights and humanitarian interventions, due to the muddled politics of policy implementation. See, for example, Sarah Lischer’s classic, controversial study on the role of humanitarian assistance in fueling civil conflict (ungated), or Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian’s more recent, comprehensive analysis of food aid and conflict onset (ungated). Due to their reliance on politics, human rights and humanitarian initiatives often fall subject to exploitation and manipulation by rights-restricting conflict actors.

“Unintended consequences” pose a similar challenge to moral policy implementation. For kinetic operations, including covert action, no-fly zones, and ground deployments, the unintended consequences are readily apparent: collateral civilian deaths, infrastructural damage, restricted aid routes, and the escalation of targeted violence against civilian populations. As policy interventions become less coercive, the unintended consequences become less apparent and, in most circumstances, less severe: economic and social dislocation, lagging human development, and public health challenges (see, for example, the oft-cited case of mineral extraction and violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo). In theory, advocates perceive human rights policy as internally and externally consistent–that is, with itself, as well as related policy frameworks, including development, public health, and peacebuilding. Frequently, however, the consequences of amoral politics undermines moral consistency, pitching human rights policy into an ambiguous sphere.

Public policy institutions, including both domestic and foreign bodies, have recognized the presence of moral hazards and unintended consequences within  the policy implementation process, and have sought to mitigate its occurrence. In the early 1960s, the Johnson administration established the Research, Programming, Planning, and Evaluation division of the Office of Economic Opportunity, the administration’s clearing house for “war on poverty” policy. By the end of the 1980s, national agencies and international bodies initiated social and environmental impact assessment programs, seeking to apply social-scientific methodologies to the understanding of political institutions, economic and social interactions, and ecological phenomena. (See McKinsey Social Sector Office for a concise timeline.)

From a public policy perspective, impact evaluation serves two roles: first, evaluative processes provide an opportunity to improve organizational inefficiencies, redundancies, and resource gaps; second, evaluation serves a moral function, allowing organizations to conduct scalable initiatives more responsibly, with an eye towards constituent, rather than organizational needs. As impact evaluation became a prominent component of international public policymaking, the non-governmental, international development community followed suit, applying medical randomization practices to existing impact evaluation frameworks. Randomized controlled trials, as they’re called, test the micro-level implementation of a development project’s “theory of change.” Development impact evaluations, according to Chris Blattman, seek to challenge basic assumptions about institutional behavior, organizational cultures, and, on a fundamental level, human nature. Innovations for Poverty Action, a development implementation, research, and evaluation organization, has championed the RCT approach, using the framework to assess the impact of peace education in Liberia, reconciliation projects in Sierra Leone, and youth demobilization and reintegration campaigns in Uganda. Most recently, the peacebuilding community–including donors bodies, like the OECD-DAC, and non-governmental organizations, like the U.S. Institute of Peace–has matured slowly towards an evaluative model. While research limitations, a vicious normative cycle, and accountability restraints continue to limit effective peacebuilding evaluation, recent USIP-guided gatherings suggest an emerging enthusiasm for the evaluative process.

Despite their relative youthfulness, human rights advocacy organizations have a great deal to learn from selective cultures of self-criticism within the public policy, development, and peacebuilding communities. As I’ve written before, cognitive biases, closed-feedback loops, and simplified narratives within human rights organizations disincentive due consideration of human rights policies’ unintended consequences and moral hazards. Policy interventions are perceived through a problematic “act first, ask later” lens; from a moral perspective, nth-order implications and political side-effects receive much less attention from organizational leadership than the burden of urgent reaction. Social impact evaluation would encompass sustained, repeated reflections on organizational theories of change–not just domestically, but within conflict zones, as well. As a formalized, institutionalized mechanism for self-criticism, communicative transparency, and responsible leadership, evaluative procedures would create more credible opportunities for responsible analyses of the long-term moral and political characteristics of rights-based initiatives.

What would a human rights impact assessment look like? McKinsey’s “Learning Driven Assessment” concept provides an important first-principles framework for assessments: ensure local, constituent-based transparency; allow constant, unfettered interaction between evaluative processes and organizational strategy; and, lastly, utilize the evaluative process to foster a learning, self-critical culture within the human rights organization. An effective evaluative process would conduct on-the-ground, systematic surveys among affected communities, allowing international advocates to move beyond politically-motivated diaspora networks as vessels for human rights evaluations. Evaluations would function as a key component of future human rights policy conversations, allowing advocacy-oriented policy analysts to consider more nuanced, fine-tuned, and less hazardous mechanisms for policy intervention. Evaluations would be conducted by third-party consultants, conceivably unaffiliated with the cognitive biases, ideological orientations, and organizational motivations of internal advocates. Darfurian Voices, a multi-organization, multi-sector survey of Darfurian perspectives on conflict resolution and human rights in Sudan, functions as a valuable model, but its organizational-level impact remains unclear.

An evaluative framework is not without its challenges, of course. As Bec Hamilton conveys in her study of the Darfur advocacy movement, human rights advocates were effective at mobilizing attention towards Darfur, but their results stopped short of comprehensive conflict resolution. Amidst the myriad of political motivations for government action, it’s difficult to differentiate between the circumstances where advocates tip the scale, and those in which advocates merely support a predetermined initiative. Additionally, there’s the financial element: in an international development context, RCTs require hundreds of thousands of dollars to implement, due to the logistical, human, and organizational burdens of field research. In a human rights context, effect evaluation would likely require coordination with on-the-ground actors, or, ideally, the deployment of a field research team to the affected area. Between the fragile circumstances, the communication challenges, and the development of local implementation networks, evaluative projects would require a significant investment. However, advocacy organizations could work with the public sector to ensure the effective, well-resourced, and successful fulfillment of evaluative pilot projects.

Related Reading: Last September, Justice in Conflict’s Patrick Wegner offered a compelling case for the creation of a “Department of Impact Assessment” at the International Criminal Court, which would evaluate the political and moral repercussions of international criminal justice interventions.

One thought on “lessons learned: the case for a human rights impact assessment

  1. I hope very much that this piece kickstarts a discussion as important as it has been neglected: What responsibility do human rights advocates have to institutionalize the process of thinking through the social impact of the proposals, recommendations, and initiatives they champion? My impression, unfortunately, is that few in the human rights community seem ready to acknowledge that this is relevant to their work–even as they move from a more limited “witness” model of human rights advocacy to broader interventions in social policy.

    Part of the problem, as I see it, is the striking cultural divergence between the human rights and the development communities. The latter engages in a more or less constant conversation about how to evaluate its impact, about unintended consequences and lessons learned and best practices. The human rights community, based on a “witness” model, has focused on the accuracy of its claims. That was fine, arguably, when the community’s preoccupations were on the victims’ fate. If a union leader has been jailed and is being tortured, one needn’t think terribly hard about recommending that she be released and receive medical care. But the more the community moves into policy making, the more of an obligation it has to consider the impact its recommendations might have. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a corresponding rise in self-consciousness.

    In the case of conflict minerals, for example, the advocacy groups were preoccupied with helping bring an end to the conflicts in eastern DRC. There is a legitimate argument to be had over how much any Western-sponsored initiative aimed at the minerals can help end the war. Specialists can in good faith disagree. BUT it is clear that no one thought through what the impact of a de facto embargo would be on the one to two million people of eastern Congo who make their living as artisanal miners–despite the fact that the embargo was a direct, entirely predictable, consequence of the “conflict minerals” campaign. No impact assessments were conducted, no serious community consultations were undertaken, and, in the aftermath, no means of redress or appeals were available to the miners themselves. (To be sure, one finds here or there in the literature an acknowledgement that some temporary dislocations may result–statements whose very vagueness reflect the problem.)

    If any good is to come from such experiences, it is that we need to institutionalize social impact assessments into our advocacy initiatives. It is not enough to do this on a piecemeal basis. We need to develop a sort of regime, for example, the way doctors did with informed consent or the way the World Bank did with infrastructure projects. We have long known that good intentions are not enough: The challenge is to institutionalize that little bit of wisdom in a way that prevents future harm.

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