Human rights as an applause light

I noticed that when I heard altruists bring up human rights while framing an issue, I would listening less closely. I wrote this post to explore why my subconscious bias developed. I suspect that teaching young international do-gooders about human rights law is often less valuable compared to empirical disciplines.
Warning: the argument is a total strawman.

The short reason is that I worry about human rights discussions distracting from the pivotal, practical questions of how to improve the lives of others. At expat dinners in Amman human rights can be an applause light, as signal for everyone to murmur in agreement. Referencing human rights can replace describing how you will change access to political power, water or education. Saying “My report is on the human right of access to water” may sound more appealing than “my report is on access to water”, but conveys no new information. Saying “my NGO is working on the human right of education” may sound more appealing than “my NGO is funded for 3 years to set up a primary school in the refugee camp”, but conveys even less information. Both are laudable goals, but the theory of change is clearer when “human rights” is removed from the elevator pitch. This effect is mostly harmless (“democracy” has the same problem). But I worry about harm in this special case.

Imagine an idealistic graduate student, Hilda. She has just finished coursework in international relations at the prestigious Wittgenstein University. Hilda has just traveled for her master’s thesis fieldwork to a fictional lower middle-income country called Urkesh. Suppose the Urkesh has some social problems. An NGO just published that only 63% of Urkesheen have reliable access to clean drinking water. Hilda wants to write a thesis then turn it into a grant proposal to help the Urkesheen realize their human right of water access, a laudable goal! The problem is that Hilda may know a great deal about human rights law, its origins, how they are passed and enforced, without being more useful than the average Urkeshee. Urkesheen may not know UNGAR 64/291, but they already endorse that people should have clean, plentiful, affordable water.

For Hilda to have impact, the first thing she must do is pay her research debt by reading lots about water access in Urkesh and around the world. Seriously. Based on only background info, Hilda can suppose a great many causes to Urkesh’s water access gap. Perhaps Urkeshee bureaucrats lack incentives to build new pipes. Perhaps Urkesh’s Ministry of Water Access (MWA) is burdened with overseas debt. Perhaps internal migration has created informal neighborhoods faster than the MWA can build infrastructure. Perhaps recent migrants lack identity papers they need to vote in local elections, so their neighborhoods are underserved. Perhaps the NGO survey was poorly designed. The set of possible causes of the access gap is large and most of which will be false or low-importance. The sooner Hilda realizes how little she knows, the faster she can read, read, read and listen, listen, listen. Then she can write a relevant theory of change and get to work.

I worry that human rights discourse gives Hilda the impression that Urkesh’s complex problems have simple solutions. I worry that vague language hides from Hilda her own confusion about the dense, unpredictable causal pathways that interventions face. I worry that human rights becomes a blackbox in Hilda’s theory of change that interventions enter and impact pops out of. What would I have Hilda read instead of UNGAR 64/291? Books like Poor Economics, the Dictators Handbook, histories like Thomas Barfield’s. Articles on Urkeshee politics, Urkeshee news outlets, academic works on infrastructure politics. and thematic area.

My sample is skewed by spending time in aid darlings Jordan and Lebanon, full of idealistic grad students dipping their feet in development. Human rights play many other high impact roles, such as comparing between cases, providing a simple language for people in rich countries to understand poorer countries, defining moral debates, protecting the welfare of the stateless, which I know very little about.