Human Rights, Evidence Based Policy, and the Global South

The developed world has been taking big steps towards integrating evidence and policymaking, but the global south has a lot to do if it wants to catch up.

Four years ago, the Hindu Nationalist organization Shiksha Bachao Andolan (literally translated as the Save Education Campaign) decided that Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History hurt their religious sentiments.  This week, after a long legal battle, it was decided out-of-court that the religious scholar’s work would be pulped by her publishers, Penguin India. Wendy Doniger issued a public statement saying “I am deeply troubled by what it foretells for free speech in India in the present, and steadily worsening political climate.” In saying this, she joins the ranks of many Indians including Amartya Sen, who have expressed fears about the current political situation there.

Doniger’s book was banned because it took a historical perspective of Hindu narratives. According to the allegations, “Placing the Ramayana in its historical contexts demonstrates that it is a work of fiction, created by human authors…” and this goes against the Indian Penal Code, section 295 A.  This is just one of the many cases of an archaic law in a developing country being used to stub out academic work that seeks to understand and improve the human condition. 

The infamous colonial-era anti-gay law of Uganda was modified last December, further restricting the rights of homosexuals. Not many weeks ago, the Supreme Court of India ruled against the decriminalization of homosexuality to the chagrin of many citizens. Homosexuality is a criminal offence according to section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, dating back to the British Raj in 1861.

In both these situations, decisions have been made only to safeguard the sentiments of select groups of people, without an empirical evaluation of  the consequences. Is banning the book not depriving potential scholars of valuable input? Is condemning homosexuals not leading to problems with healthcare access and discrimination against hundreds of people? Where is the evidence in favour of these decisions?

The chasm lies not only in using evidence for policy, but in generation of evidence itself. The Global Forum for Health Research famously discovered the 90/10 gap. It showed that only 10% of the global funding for research is spent on problems that affect the poorest 90% of the population of the global south. To add to this inequality, doubts are being raised about international funding to developing countries, despite the fact that funding for human development issues is known to be effective.

Britain has been working on evidence-based policymaking since 1999. The path has not always been smooth, but progress has definitely been made in improving communication between academics and politicians. This week, a smoking ban was issued for people driving in cars with children- a great victory for public health. Scotland passed a same-sex marriage bill last week, to general approval and with a spirit of celebration. Why then, are ex-colonies still festering in age-old non-evidence based frameworks of governance?

This can only partly be explained by a colonial past. Economic development has not been held back in developing countries. Poverty, on the whole, is on a downward slope. Human Rights are different; they are more nuanced and require political will over and above evidence. Political will seeks to please the populous in the short term. The question then,  becomes whether the populous is being trusted to make the right choice, or are assumptions being made based on a skewed view of widely held beliefs?

History is strewn with the  terrible consequences of entire nations ignoring the voice of reason.  As the world shrinks, it is easy to fall into the trap of believing that positive changes in one corner will automatically trickle down to the rest of the world. The globe is only shrinking in the realm of knowledge. For real positive change to come about, taking active steps is not just an option, it is a necessity.

The developing world needs to wake up to the voice of reason. It needs to hold its lawmakers responsible for ensuring the physical, emotional, and intellectual freedom of its citizens. We need evidence, and we need decision-makers to respect what the evidence says.

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