In pursuit of a better, fairer world

Published in Al Jazeera in February 2014

In pursuit of a better, fairer world

Tackling rampant inequality is not just a moral duty: It’s a human rights obligation.

Inequality comes in multiple overlapping forms, which often feed into each other [Reuters]


About the Author
Luke Holland

Luke Holland is a researcher and communications coordinator at the Center for Economic and Social Rights.

Story highlights

Development negotiations taking place in this year will have a pivotal impact on the future wellbeing of ordinary people everywhere. Relatively unnoticed by the media, a broad spectrum of consultations and talks are currently unfolding as the community of nations endeavors to agree a new sustainable development agenda that can ensure equitable socio-economic development while also guaranteeing environmental sustainability in the post-2015 era. This week (Feb-3-8) in the UN’s New York headquarters, the Open Working Group (OWG) on the Sustainable Development Goals will address one of the most pressing issues of our time: inequality. This will be the OWG’s eighth and final session before drawing up a set of concrete proposals to be presented to the General Assembly, which is due to hammer out the

Relatively unnoticed by the media, a broad spectrum of consultations and talks are currently unfolding as the community of nations endeavours to agree on a new sustainable development agenda that can ensure equitable socio-economic development. This round of negotiations will have a pivotal impact on the future well-being of ordinary people the world over.

This week, the UN’s Open Working Group (OWG) on the Sustainable Development Goals, the eighth and final session, will address one of the most pressing issues of our time: Inequality. OWG is due to draw out a set of concrete proposals to submit to the General Assembly, which is expected to hammer out the parameters of a new global development framework next September.

As demonstrated in a devastating recent report from Oxfam, global inequality has now reached historic and unacceptable levels. Tackling these increasingly pronounced disparities, both within and between countries, will be essential if future development efforts are to deliver a more just and sustainable world.

A lack of attention to inequality in the original Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), agreed on back in 2000, left the door open to patterns of widening economic and social divergence.

Inequality comes in multiple overlapping forms, which all-too-often feed into each other. Differentials in household wealth and income conspire with disparities between rural and urban areas, and inequalities along the lines of gender, disability, ethnicity, and migration status, in a dysfunctional synergy. The result is that many millions of people are shut out of development processes, their rights violated, their dreams and aspirations smothered and their potential to contribute to development wasted.

Inequality comes in multiple overlapping forms, which all-too-often feed into each other.

This is not just a question of North-South politics; the post-2015 agenda will apply to all countries, and as such its provisions on equality will have important implications for disparities within developed countries, too.

Policy-makers would do well to remember that inflated levels of income inequality were also a central factor in triggering the global financial crisis, and the ruinous human costs that came with it.

Above the law?

Ethical and instrumental considerations are not the only reasons growing disparity must be tackled head-on, however. It is also a legal obligation under international human rights law. The duty to address inequality and discrimination is contained in the principal human rights treaties which the vast majority of states have already signed and ratified, and it also lies at the core of a human rights-based approach to development, which is being demanded by civil society organizations all over the world.

Underpinning this drive is the understanding that future development efforts must be based on principles of justice, rather than charity, if they are to have a genuinely transformative impact. A human rights approach empowers citizens to influence and direct development processes themselves, and in this way addresses the structural underpinnings of inequality in a way that a traditional charity-based model cannot. Most importantly, it represents a paradigmatic and corrective shift away from the shortfalls of the current MDGs, which will expire in 2015 with few of the targets they contain being achieved.

The principles of universality and non-discrimination, as set out in the international human rights legal order, require that inequality be addressed both in law and in practice, wherever it may manifest. At the most basic level, this requires robust anti-discrimination legislation, rectifying unjustifiable wage differentials and providing for decent work. Such fundamental measures must go hand-in-hand with efforts to tackle the structural drivers of inequality, such as regressive fiscal policies and taxation regimes, egregious levels of tax abuse and evasion, weak labour market regulation and economic policies that promote “jobless growth”.

Moreover, the duty to meet minimum core standards of social and economic well-being, as confirmed by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, requires that states guarantee basic social protection floors to all people within their jurisdictions. Research by the International Labour Organization has demonstrated that this key tool in redressing inequality is affordable even in low-income countries. And in an age when the roll-back of social protection systems has exacerbated poverty and inequality in manycountries, the necessity of fulfilling this duty is more pertinent than ever.

All of these measures will be crucial to redress inequality in the post-2015 era. Policies implemented by the state and other powerful development actors only represent one side of the equality equation, however, as an empowered, well-informed and actively engaged society will likewise be necessary if the failures of the past are to be avoided this time around.

Democratising development

Arguably the greatest failing of the current MDGs is that they were conceived in a top-down manner, with states promoting development for an ostensibly passive beneficiary populace. This approach, founded in a vision of development that is itself rooted in inequality, must be turned on its head. Effective systems of accountability, participation and transparency are the tools with which this about-face can and must be achieved.

Firstly, all development actors must be held accountable for commitments set out in the new agenda. The absence of effective systems of accountability in the original MDGs meant that governments faced no meaningful incentives to deliver on their promises. In order to remedy this fatal flaw, time-bound commitments must be subject to effective monitoring of both the goals, the policy and budgetary efforts governments made to achieve them.

This question of accountability also speaks to the need for the meaningful participationof those facing poverty and discrimination in all development processes. Just as powerful development actors must be held accountable to the new goals, so those most affected by poverty and injustice must be enabled to shape the design, implementation and monitoring of development.

People living in poverty generally see their deprivation in terms of voice and power, or the lack thereof, just as much as material wealth.

Ensuring transparency by delivering timely, disaggregated data on the processes and outcomes of development efforts will be a crucial prerequisite to achieving the effective participation of vulnerable groups.

Taken together, the principles of accountability, participation, and transparency can serve to facilitate empowered citizen pressure, thereby ensuring more responsive governance and confronting the structural underpinnings of inequality. Combined with other direct measures, such as progressive fiscal policies and social protection floors, they have the potential to overcome these key obstacles to equitable and sustainable development.

In September this year, the international community will meet again, when the General Assembly considers the OWG recommendations and negotiations on the post-2015 agenda move into the final strait. Between now and then, those who would prioritise even greater accumulation of wealth for an elite few, rather than a just and sustainable future for all, will no doubt seek to influence debates and consolidate their power. The international community faces an ethical and environmental imperative to make sure short-sighted economic demands do not take precedence over social and economic justice, however.

Indeed, the real test of progress must surely be the degree to which ordinary people can access their inherent human rights and enjoy freedom from both want and fear. This is the legitimate expectation of those campaigning for a new sustainable development agenda that reflects the lived experiences of women, indigenous people, persons with disabilities and others frequently left out of the development process.

Should national governments fail to properly address equality and the human rights obligations that underpin it in the design and implementation of the post-2015 framework, they will not only be derelict in their legal duties; they also run a serious of risk of squandering the opportunity to create a better, fairer world for this and future generations. The stakes could not be higher.

Luke Holland is a researcher and communications coordinator at the Center for Economic and Social Rights. 


What do policymakers want?

Originally published by Enrique Mendizabal in May 2014

[Editor’s note: this post has been edited to include a recent study from Australia.]

Three recent reports on the views of policymakers have been making the rounds in influential blogs and online spaces.

From the United States

The first is a report on what White House policymakers in the US want from researchers that first came to my attention via Duncan Green’s blog. The paper: What Do Policymakers Want From Us?, by Paul Avey and Michael Desch, found, interestingly that:

policymakers do regularly follow academic social science research and scholarship on national security affairs hoping to draw upon its substantive expertise. But put into question the direct relevance of the most scientific approaches to international relations.

And, to the surprise of many, their fundings challenge:

the “trickle down” theory that basic social science research eventually influences policymakers.

The authors try to answer a question that many think tanks have asked themselves (but rarely actually ask policymakers);

What, precisely, do the most senior national security policymakers want from international relations scholars?

They arrive at a number of interesting findings. Some are well known by now but other, I think, are worth highlighting:

Theory is not a bad word: I remember, before “Theory of Change” became all the rage, being asked by DFID to remove the word “theory” (in relation to brief mention to theories of political change) from a 15 page How to Note on how to plan and monitor policy influencing strategies (I was also asked to cut the note as it was too long).  DFID and other agencies have employed lots of ‘knowledge brokers’ to digest theory for policymakers and protect them from the hard world of academic research. The problem, however, aren’t the theories or the complex ideas that researchers often deal with. The problem is jargon!

While policymakers do use theory they are skeptical of much of academic social science which they see as jargon-ridden and overly focused on technique, at the expense of substantive findings.

Smart policymakers are not researchers best friends (at least not for those who like to claim impact): A few months ago, Philipe Martin wrote about an interesting situation among the think tanks of the TTI. Apparently, the policymakers that knew the think tanks better also distrusted them more. In other words, the more one knows about something the more one is skeptical or critical about those who claim to know about it, too.

Not surprisingly, rank in government is often negatively associated with tolerance for sophisticated methods; more striking, in our view, is that level of education also has that same negative correlation, indicating that it is those most familiar with those theories and techniques who are most skeptical of them.

It is about people -and ideas, but mostly people: In the world of intelligence services the most important contributions to policy/decisions happens not via ‘briefs’ or ‘documents’ but conversations. From that post:

At the National Intelligence Council, I came to think that, for all the technology, strategic analysis was best done in person. I came to think that our real product weren’t those papers, the NIEs (National Intelligence Estimates). Rather they were the NIOs, the National Intelligence Officers –the experts, not the papers.

The paper on the White House agrees:

Finally, policymakers believe that the most important contributions scholars can make are not as direct policy participants or trainers of aspiring government employees, but rather as informal advisors or creators of new knowledge. However, severe time constraints limit their ability to use such scholarship in any but its’ very briefest presentation.

From Britain

The second paper comes from Britain and deal with the role that the media, especially printed newspapers, play in reaching and influencing policymakers. Earlier this year I organised an event in Lima in which we asked a journalist, a politician, and a researcher how they preferred to access information. The political panelist was very clear in the role that the media played in shaping his agenda -even his agenda for the day.

This paper by Colin Talbot and Carole Talbot at Manchester University: Sir Humphrey and the professors: What does Whitehall want from academics? Makes this very same point.

The findings include the following:

How do they access expertise?

Screen Shot 2014-04-30 at 17.19.33

Most interestingly, though, policymakers where asked about what disciplines they found more useful. Not surprisingly, the findings show that more applied or applicable disciplines came on top. Many think tanks tend to organise themselves along disciplines (economics, law, social sciences, etc.) and therefore fail to capture policymakers’ own preferences:

Screen Shot 2014-04-30 at 17.24.09

Finally (there are many more interesting findings), the survey asks whether specific research or practical expertise is more important for policymakers. The answer suggests that researches need to get involved in the practice of their fields of study -even more than they worry about communicating their research findings:

Screen Shot 2014-04-30 at 17.26.34

From Australia

The third paper is one recently published via the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blogAustralian survey indicates policy-makers still have major reservations about assigning priority to academic research by  Michele FergusonBrian HeadAdrian Cherney and Paul Boreham.  In fact, the Australian report is a whole project that includes several papers that can be found here: Publications from: Are Australian policymakers interested in social science research?

Among their publications is included a survey:

the responses from the survey indicated that academic research, while valued and considered relevant, is not being used by the majority of staff in policy decision-making. Policy staff at both federal and state levels indicated major reservations about assigning high priority to academic research in their policy development work and only 16 percent of respondents reported that university research results have regularly influenced changes in policies developed by their unit.

But most interesting is the difference in the perception of influence between policymakers and researchers. This table speaks for it self:

Academics certainly think quite highly of themselves. My own experience working with think tanks in developing countries would tend to confirm this. The thousands of case studies that research funders like to commission (and think tanks like to produce) overestimate the role that research plays on policymaking.

The Australian researchers provide an excellent list of key results that are worth publishing here:


94% – Indicated that the internet is an important means of obtaining research information82% – Reported difficulties in accessing full-text versions of academic articles and reports

81% – Agreed that the policy-making process is driven by budgetary considerations

71% – Perceived that urgent day-to-day issues take precedence over “long-term” thinking

71% – When using academic research, consider it a high priority that the research findings are unbiased

61% – Reported that in the last 12 months they had written a policy-related document that drew on academic research

Academic researchers

84– Agreed that academic reward systems do not adequately recognise dissemination of work to non-academic end-users81– Indicated that the amount of time needed to invest in coordinating the work between different partners in research collaborations is potentially problematic

80% – Find there are different research orientations between academics and external partners

77% – Agreed that research partnerships have provided them with opportunities for their research to have an impact on policy and practice

73– Agreed that the academic requirement to publish in peer-reviewed journals inhibits a focus on policy and practitioner audiences

All papers are worth reading in detail. There have been previous efforts in international development think tanks to undertake similar surveys. Unfortunately, they have never been large enough nor sufficiently robust to yield much more than anecdotal evidence.

The Australian study in particular converse a number of angles and issues. It also provides excellent recommendations (published in the LSE blog).

It is quite telling that they are:

  1. Common sense things: 1) to be influential, academic research must be accesible, 2) all actors must take the time and effort to build and maintain relationships, 3) choose the best channels and tools and be consistent, 4) create opportunities to bring policymakers and academics together.
  2. They should be part of the day to day job of research centres by now. I am amazed at funders still hiring consultants and ‘encouraging’ their grantees to make their research more accesible, or build relationships with the media or with policymakers. These should have been incorporated into think tanks’ and even more academically leaning research centres’ core mandates.

The mechanisms and markers of research quality for Think Tanks

Originally published in Research to Action in February 2015.

Adriana Arellano, is the Research Director at GrupoFARO, an Ecuadorian, independent, plural, non-partisan, secular think tank. This post has been adapted from an original contribution to the TTI Exchange e-forum.

Research quality is a key concern and indicator for think tanks, one we keep enriching and trying to measure. The concept of research quality is made up of a mix of characteristics and recognised elements, including:

  • Application of sound methods
  • A comprehensive review of relevant literature
  • Evidenced-based conclusions
  • Consideration of limitations, making them explicit and avoiding bias
  • Use of high quality data sets
  • Relevance
  • Timeliness
  • Usefulness of the research products

Think tanks regularly measure or assess the quality of their research efforts through different mechanisms and quality markers:

1. Intra-organisation review processes and external peer review processes

2. Quality perception surveys

3. Number of indexed articles published

4. Research uptake by policy makers

  1. Review processes: The first two mechanisms work not only as a means to measure but also to improve quality. Review processes can help a think tank gather feedback on flaws and observations on the quality of a publication.
  2. Quality perception surveys: These are useful mechanisms used to assess the quality of products generated by a think tank. They provide an opportunity to understand stakeholders’ perceptions considering broader aspects of quality that include the relevance of research, timeliness and usefulness to the policy process.
  3. Number of indexed articles published: This quality marker is often used by donors and think tanks to measure research quality. However, it is complicated to concentrate on this indicator, as it is more suited to the work of universities, who have a stronger focus on reaching an academic audience, rather than that of think tanks who work to reach a variety of audiences beyond academic journal readers[*].
  4. Research uptake by policy makers: This indicator is difficult to assess as the policy making process is too complex. Policy development can take a lot of time, and depending on the context, in some cases think tanks will want to first raise awareness on an issue before building the grounds for a debate or the proposal of a specific policy. At other times, the process of research uptake can be indirect, through constituents or media representatives. One way to more closely evaluate this marker would be to measure the dissemination of research products with appropriate audiences and assess the levels of influence these have on the relevant stage of the policy-making cycle depending on the context.

When differentiating our organisations and our efforts from those of other research producers, like universities, the definition of research quality and its markers requires particular attention. The concepts of Modes of Knowledge Production (Gibbons 1998) may be useful for this purpose, with most universities falling under Mode 1 of knowledge production and most think tanks operating under Mode 2:

Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 12.51.12
Many organisations may move from Mode 1 to Mode 2 depending on the type of work they are doing, their teams, the project they are working on and the issue they research. However, this framework can be used to better understand the realm of work for our organisations and help define more relevant quality markers and indicators for our research products.

[*] According to a recent study, half of academic papers are read only by their authors and journal editors,

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