How Well Do Countries Fulfill Economic and Social Rights?

As published in CFR Development Channel


The UN Human Rights Council will hold its 14th Universal Periodic Review this month to evaluate human rights practices in fourteen member states from across the globe.

Countries are bound under international law to respect, protect, and fulfill the economic and social rights of their citizens, yet efforts to hold states accountable for meeting these human rights obligations have long been frustrated. At least part of this challenge is one of objective evaluation and measurement. States are legally obligated to commit the “maximum available resources” to progressively fulfill the economic and social rights (ESRs) of their citizens.  This “progressive realization” formulation has long complicated efforts to monitor countries’ fulfillment of rights obligations, since without an evidence-based model for assessing performance it allows states to escape from their human rights obligations by claiming inadequate resources. Often socioeconomic indicators like the Human Development Index (HDI) are used to understand how economic and social rights are being fulfilled. While HDI indicators can provide useful information about the welfare of citizens, these indicators fail to reveal the how well states are doing in light of available resources.

In response to this challenge, Susan RandolphSakiko Fukuda-Parr, and I have developed the Social & Economic Rights Fulfillment (SERF) Index to provide another perspective on development.  Instead of simply measuring the performance of countries in a number of socioeconomic indicators, the SERF Index rigorously assesses states’ fulfillment of economic and social rights obligations by measuring the gap between actual and feasible economic and social rights enjoyment. Specifically, this tool allows quantitative measurement and analysis regarding fulfillment of the right to food, the right to adequate shelter, the right to healthcare, the right to education, the right to decent work, and protection against discrimination. The SERF Index allows apples-to-apples comparisons across countries by estimating states’ economic and social rights obligations using an evidence-based “Achievement Possibilities Frontier.”

While socioeconomic statistics like school enrollment and infant mortality tell us the extent to which rights-holding individuals enjoy economic and social rights, these statistics lack the relevant context of per capita income which indicates resource availability. By relating countries’ per capita income with their performance on socioeconomic statistics like malnutrition, infant mortality, and school enrollment, the Achievement Possibilities Frontier reveals the best a country can do at any given level of income. This evidence-based performance standard allows states to be held accountable for meeting their economic and social rights obligations under international law.



The findings are sobering: a large number of countries—rich and poor—are falling short of meeting their economic and social rights obligations, presenting a daunting task for the UN Human Rights Council and other rights bodies. The worst-performing country, Equatorial Guinea, only meets 16 percent of its overall obligations. Low scores can reflect a lack of will to give necessary priority to economic and social rights, ineffective policies and programs, or both.

These results are substantially different from measures that merely account for the rights-bearer perspective, like the Human Development Index (HDI). For example, while Human Development Indicators similarly rank both Jordan and Turkey as medium performers, when state resource capacity is accounted for, significant discrepancies in economic and social rights fulfillment are revealed—Jordan is among the top performing in its category with a rank of 6th, as compared with Turkey which ranks 87th. Jordan’s high rank stems from good performance fulfilling rights to education, health, food, adequate housing, and decent work; however, the country faces significant lags in its obligations with respect to non-discrimination (for example, for women). Ironically, Jordan guarantees women’s rights legally and institutionally, yet performs poorly in practice—all the while performing strongly in its health rights fulfillment, despite not formally recognizing a right to health.

This post is the first in a series of two addressing the SERF Index and the upcoming UN Periodic Review. In my next post, I will use the SERF Index to analyze and compare rights practices in several of the countries up for review.  More information about the Economic and Social Rights Empowerment Initiative and the SERF index is available at