Published on October 7, 2016
SGPIA Professor Sakiko Fukuda-Parr has been working on human rights and development for over thirty years. She was recently awarded the 2016 Best Book in Human Rights by the American Political Science Association (APSA) for her book Fulfilling Social and Economic Rights (2015, Oxford University Press, co-authored with Terra Lawson-Remer and Susan Randolph).
In their award citation, APSA wrote,
“Their Social and Economic Rights Fulfillment (SERF) Index measures the attainment of a number of internationally recognized rights — the rights to education, health, housing, food, and work — in a manner that takes into account the differences in states’ capabilities. Thus, we finally have a measure that is comprehensive, replicable, comparable across states with very different material capabilities, and more objective than the prevailing measures… This book, rich with data and arguments, is also written in a very accessible and engaging style. It will be a “must reading” for all students of human rights, regardless of their level of expertise.”
During a sit-down conversation, Professor Fukuda-Parr discussed the book, her work and the trajectory of her career. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Congratulations on the award. Can you talk about your journey in human rights and development that led to this moment?
Sakiko Fukuda-Parr: I want to say, first of all, what is important about this award: coming from the American Political Science Association, it reflects the recognition of social and economic rights as human rights by the mainstream academia. For decades, these rights were not only neglected but rejected by many scholars, activists and governments. During the Cold War, economic and social rights were considered to be Communist rights, and there was almost an active aversion to this area of scholarship. That legacy has not yet disappeared entirely. So, this award is a wonderful recognition of economic and social rights as human rights.
How did you get involved in this field?
I have been working on development since the 1970s but it was not until the 1990s that I discovered Human Rights. The two fields were kept separate in an effort to ensure that development could be studied and promoted with political neutrality. This all started to change with the end of the Cold War in the 1990s. The human rights community began to realize that poverty was a human rights challenge and the development community began to realize that human progress could be defined as the realization of human rights – economic, social, cultural, civil and political. I have been part of that movement, starting in 2000, when I argued in the UNDP Human Development Report (that I was leading at the time) that human rights and human development were two sides of the same coin.
With respect to measurement of human rights development, I found the approach by human rights scholars and activists frustrating and troubling. On the one hand, there was a fascination with creating and using indicators and economic and social rights were measured by development indicators. On the other hand, civil and political rights measures that were around then were based on subjective judgements, not objective observations. I attended many seminars on human rights measurement and found kindred spirits in Terra Lawson-Remer and Susan Randolph. The three of us decided to develop a more rigorous and unbiased methodology and ended up creating the SERF Index which we outlined in our book.
You make developing a measurement tool sound so easy. Was it?
(Laughing) No. It took a very long time to complete the book. You do not just develop a measurement tool. Our purpose was to find out whether there had been progress, where, and why? I think we started working on it probably around 2007 or 2008. For about a year, or so, were mostly just playing around with it, and then we organized a workshop and invited people to brainstorm. We published a couple of journal articles and then realized that we had so much to say that we thought it worthwhile to write a book. In 2009, we received an invitation from the Johan Skytte Foundation in Sweden. This allowed us to present our manuscript to a book workshop at the University of Uppsala, Sweden. We invited scholars, showed them our draft and had them tear it apart (laughing).
They did, but it was a very helpful tearing apart and we had to rewrite the book all over again. In the meantime, we were all busy doing many other things which made it very difficult. Nonetheless, by 2014 or 2015, we decided “enough is enough” and it was time to put the book to bed.
You have won this award but is that reflective of the reception your work by your peers?
How does one introduce a new index into popular use in the field?
Oh, that’s very hard (laughing). The creative work we did was in developing the index. But for it to be used, you need to maintain a data set, updating the index each year. This is not something that (researchers) Susan, Terra and I can do. You need resources and an institutional home that can house it. Most indices are housed at large institutions like the World Bank, Freedom House, or universities.
What do you hope this work will achieve longterm?
The purpose of our work was never to invent an index or elaborate a methodology. It was to understand what policies and institutions make a difference in advancing human rights. Our book argues that progress has been made in fulfilling human rights across the world, despite some setbacks. We began to explore the drivers of progress. We found that it was not law, nor democracy, nor spending – but gender equality and empowering women. We also found that there was no contradiction between promoting human rights and economic growth. We hope more people will be able to use the index in researching such questions. That will ultimately help us ensure that human rights priorities drive economic and social policies.
Fulfilling Social and Economic Rights is currently available in hardcover and paperback from Oxford University Press, in bookstores and online.
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