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StatAid Offers Statistics for Human Rights

1 July 2010 One Comment
Michael Kisielewski

It’s Monday morning and staff in Maryland are mulling over a project proposal to explore the application of geographic information systems to documenting human-rights violations in Sierra Leone. As we sift through a large data set on human-rights abuses in western Africa, we ponder the statistical approaches that can be used in our proposed analysis. Meanwhile, 9,300 miles from Washington, DC, in Zimbabwe, our executive director is putting together a stack of handbooks and technical manuals in preparation for a training session she will be conducting. A network of human-rights organizations in Zimbabwe has sought our help in building its capacity for conducting statistical analysis and using data to advance its work. A ‘typical’ work week has begun …

For decades, statisticians—and ASA members in particular—have been plying their trade to promote human rights and advance humanitarian causes. Through a close partnership with the Science and Human Rights Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the ASA’s Committee on Scientific Freedom and Human Rights has assisted in situations where statisticians have been denied fundamental freedoms and provided expertise in analyzing human rights violations data.

More recently, the efforts of Statistics without Borders and the Special Interest Group on Volunteerism have culminated in assistance trips to Haiti, questionnaire and sample design assistance to the Inter-American Development Bank, and even basic data entry for health and human rights surveys. By and large, those efforts have been pro bono. However, pro bono efforts aren’t always feasible, especially when a project requires a substantial amount of time, effort, human resources, and expertise in complex human-rights questions.

Some statisticians, such as Mary Gray at American University, have focused a major portion of their research on humanitarian and human rights concerns, helping nurture a longer-term agenda of improving human rights outcomes through empirical evidence. Meanwhile, nonprofit organizations such as the Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG) at Benetech have advanced the science of human rights violations data analysis and will continue doing so.

Despite these efforts, the humanitarian and human rights communities still have many statistical needs that aren’t being met:

    Organizations that focus on human-rights concerns typically do not have sufficient in-house capacity for more than basic summary statistics. Although initiatives such as HRDAG can offer strong technical assistance on large projects requiring sophisticated statistical methods, few statisticians are available to provide basic capacity-building support to the vast array of small, local human rights advocacy groups (and larger national groups).
    Research on best methods for human rights violations data collection is sparse and poorly funded. Most advances on appropriate methods result from “on-the-fly” innovations made during existing data collection and analysis projects.
    Thus far, most of the statistical and other quantitative work on human-rights violations has focused on civil and political rights, but there is a great need for improvement of data collection and analysis related to economic, social, and cultural human rights, such as the right to food, housing, shelter, education, and health.

For all those reasons and more, StatAid was created.

StatAid is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with a permanent staff of three, an adjunct staff member, multiple interns and volunteers, and a board of directors made up of statisticians who have been involved directly in human rights work for decades. Its mission is to:

    Provide affordable statistical consulting services to nonprofit organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and international and national governments and institutions, with a specific focus on organizations that promote, defend, and/or monitor human rights and humanitarian causes
    Participate in and initiate research that improves survey methodology and statistical methods for collecting and analyzing data related to human rights and humanitarian concerns
    Offer statistical and survey methodological training to the types of organizations listed above that wish to expand their knowledge of and ability to use statistical and survey methodology, and, in so doing, serve as a capacity-building resource for those organizations

Since its inception in July 2009, StatAid has undertaken several projects. For example, it used generalized estimating equations to explore predictors of development levels for the United Nations Human Development Programme. It performed complex sample design and analysis for human rights violations surveys in Africa for the Center for Disaster Assistance and Humanitarian Medicine. StatAid also is working with high-school and college students in the greater DC area, providing internship experiences and introducing students to policy planning based on empirical evidence.

StatAid’s long-term goals include providing statistical capacity building to domestic and international human rights and humanitarian groups, engaging in research on best methods for collecting and analyzing human rights violations data in various contexts, and being readily available on a consulting basis to organizations that would benefit from its services, regardless of their ability to fund the work.

Thus far, the majority of StatAid’s support has come from individual donations and fees charged for its consulting services. Although foundation grants will ultimately provide the majority of StatAid’s funding, individual donations are greatly needed—especially during this initial growth phase. Individual donations offset expenses for which foundation funding is scarce or nonexistent, and for which consultation fees simply cannot be charged. For example, StatAid’s outreach efforts to small, subnational, nongovernmental organizations with little funding depends on individual donations, as does the ability to accept and mentor high-school and college students.

For years, statisticians and quantitative social scientists have been part of a rich tradition that has supported the advancement of human rights and humanitarian causes. StatAid was born out of the desire to continue—and enhance—that tradition. To support StatAid by volunteering, email probono@stataid.org. To donate funds, visit the StatAid website or send a check (payable to StatAid) to 6930 Carroll Ave., Suite 420, Takoma Park, MD 20912. Donations are 100% tax deductible.

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