Editor’s Choice

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Editor’s Choice

To mark its first anniversary, GC Human Rights Preparedness is introducing a new feature. It is called Editor’s Choice. We hope you enjoy it.

Twelve months ago, and three and a half months after the WHO declared the COVID-19 pandemic, the Global Campus launched Human Rights Preparedness. Our motivations were multiple. We were keen to connect our community in a new way, bridging and integrating at a time when world views were closing. We were also—as the EU’s Special Representative for Human Rights noted in a video message welcoming GC Human Rights Preparedness—keen to rise to the future.

Editor’s Choice
One year on, we’ve announced a training programme for Global Campus alumni who become our regional correspondents. We’re also introducing a new feature. It’s called Editor’s Choice and it involves members of our team taking turns to talk about their favourite pieces. Their choices may chime with yours; we hope they will also steer you towards pieces you missed. And as our archive builds, Editor’s Choice will help you navigate it: we shall be surfacing connections and weaving new ones too. At the same time, we’ll protect the marbling—the distinctiveness within constant commingling—that characterises GC Human Rights Preparedness.

My choices
I have chosen two pieces. The first, published in July 2020, was written by Mike Hayes. His topic was measurement—in particular why the Global Health Security index, designed to predict countries’ preparedness for health emergencies, was so poor at predicting preparedness for the COVID-19 pandemic, if measured in terms of number of deaths from the virus. My second choice, published at the start of 2021, was written by Hector Mazzei. His post, part of a Curated section on science and human rights, explored ways in which universities in Latin America had been helping to mitigate the effects of the pandemic.

Measuring human rights preparedness
Mike Hayes outlined three things we might learn from the Global Health Security index’s failure to predict what countries were prepared for the pandemic. The first lesson is that preparedness is more than a technical problem; it is also a political and a social problem. Second, this means we need a more nuanced understanding of how success is achieved, and as part this we need to be alert to any implicit assumptions about what good governance looks like. Third, at the same time, no amount of assessing the ability of governance can determine if the government is willing to govern, or even if the people want to be governed. As Mike Hayes explained:

The challenges to human rights in recent years from populism are in many ways similar to the challenges in preparing for a pandemic, and also something missed in the GHS index. By focusing too much on the technical and not the social, forces that can disrupt preparedness are missed.

His prescription was clear but challenging: ‘If human rights preparedness is to be assessed, the social and political context has to be part of this assessment.’ His prescription was also timely. Pre-pandemic, evidence-based policy and decision-making were foregrounded in lots of places, including within human rights organisations that were accustomed to different methods (legal and qualitative ones) and thus faced skills and experience gaps, and uncertainties, as they worked to engage with numbers. Amidst the pandemic, many more of us have begun to see the pros and cons, and the fierce power, of numbers-driven decision-making. In fact, one scientist has called the pandemic ‘a once-in-a-century evidence fiasco’ (though others say that such fiascos are ‘far from uncommon’). Thus there is a window for critical engagement—engagement as to what counts as information, who gets to claim expertise, how accountability is demonstrated, and why we have tended to assume that technocratic knowledge is separate from (and a better problem-solver than) political perspectives. This engagement is vital not just for the pandemic present but also for the Sustainable Development Goals and, more broadly, for the quality of expertise, truth and authority.

Enabling purposeful partnerships
Critical engagement of a different sort is at the heart of Hector Mazzei’s post, which describes how state-supported ‘innovation ecosystems’ in Argentina worked in purposeful ways to drive solid solutions to pandemic problems, such as how to create virus detection tests for the country’s national health system when key components were either scarce or unavailable.

For me, this post was a balm. It was unflinching in its account of how the pandemic has amplified existing inequalities and created new insecurities: as ‘walls went up’, restricting export of medical supplies, import-reliant states across Latin America were left without essential resources. It was also a beacon of hope: in Argentina, universities and their partners in state-enabled innovation networks moved at pace and were able to plug some of the resource gaps.

This post could easily have had a singular focus: it could have been an account of the haves and the have-nots—of the inequity and injustice that impede the right to health and the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications. That would have been a compelling and chastening post, but Hector Mazzei chose to do more. His post is also an account of local empowerment. And crucially, this empowerment was forged not by resilience in crisis or by luck, or at least not by those alone. Instead, it was a product of planned intervention in law and political economy, dating back to the 1990s, designed to bring together local expertise—universities, researchers and companies—to build strategic alliances for innovation.

That intervention helped forge responsiveness, communication and connectivity; more specifically, it facilitated a critical public service at a time of crisis. By telling us about it, Hector Mazzei’s post also reminds us that places of intellectual creativity and knowledge production may not be only where we assume they are. More broadly, his post alerts us to the need to think hard and well about rising to the future, including how we create justice-oriented technological innovation and transfer .

Optimistic caution
To conclude: I chose the posts by Hector Mazzei and Mike Hayes in part because they struck a chord with me. In larger part, I chose them because they present a way of thinking that cascades through GC Human Rights Preparedness. I call it ‘optimistic caution’. The phrase comes from a podcast hosted by the London Review of Books, where its use was off-the-cuff and largely unexplained. Moreover, the podcast’s topic was neither human rights preparedness nor any other aspect of human rights. Still, the phrase stuck in my head. It captures something about the pieces published by GC Human Rights Preparedness—they take a long view and a world view, rising to the future by dispensing with both scepticism and pathological optimism. I close with a quote from Jorge Luis Borges’ essays ‘The size of my hope’, which appears in Hector Mazzei’s post. It says what I am trying to say:

And let it be known that the future is not present at all
without rehearsing first, and that such rehearsal is hope.

Thérèse Murphy

Written by Thérèse Murphy

Thérèse Murphy is professor of law and director of the Health & Human Rights Unit at Queen’s University Belfast. She is chair of the European Master’s in Human Rights and Democratisation and a founding editor of GC Human Rights Preparedness.

Cite as: Murphy, Thérèse. "Editor’s Choice", GC Human Rights Preparedness, 8 July 2021, https://gchumanrights.org/preparedness/article-on/editors-choice.html


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