by Shareen Hertel and Lanse Minkler (eds). New York : Cambridge University Press, 2007. 420pp. Hardback $90.00/£45.00. ISBN: 97805210870559. Paperback $29.99/£16.99. ISBN: 9780521690829. eBook format. $24.00. ISBN: 9780511332319.

Reviewed by Andrew T. Hayashi, Department of Economics, University of California, Berkeley. Email: ahayashi[at]


Unless one is already familiar with the history of human rights scholarship and the state of the field today, one will be struck when reading ECONOMIC RIGHTS about how frequently the discussion returns to certain fundamental questions underlying the research program. What is the source and justification of human rights? For any given answer to this question, is there a meaningful distinction between so-called negative and positive rights? Even if positive economic rights, such as the right to a decent standard of living, basic income, and work, are fundamental human rights, then should they be codified as justiciable legal entitlements? Are legally enforceable economic rights desirable or even feasible? The recurring appearance of these questions is perhaps because the distinction in the United States between legal rights to be free from interference and legal entitlements to certain benefits retains such currency. Yet, it is also apparent that there is no unanimity on these foundational questions even among the economic rights scholars represented in the volume. ECONOMIC RIGHTS contains numerous valuable insights and innovations, empirical and theoretical, for students and scholars interested in the rights-based approach to alleviating poverty and global injustice. Indeed, it has many contributions that will be helpful to anyone concerned with either development or distributive justice issues, regardless of one’s views about how to achieve them. However, the authors’ protestations about the settled philosophical status of economic rights and the importance of justiciability notwithstanding, I could not help but come away from this collection of essays feeling quite ambivalent about whether economic rights are the best way to secure freedom from deprivation for the global poor.

ECONOMIC RIGHTS is a collection of articles by various scholars from law, political, science, and economics that were initially prepared as papers for a conference on economic rights. Naturally, the methodological diversity of the articles in the volume reflects this. The volume is neatly divided into three parts, containing pieces on conceptual, measurement, and policy issues related to economic rights. The organization is excellent, both making the book easy to use as a reference for current research on these three subtopics, as well as providing a logical framework for partitioning the broad field of economic rights. As a result, the book is much more coherent than one would expect from a collection of essays of this sort. The writing is consistently very good, and although the essays on empirical [*625] methods require some basic familiarity with quantitative methods, none of the articles are beyond the reach of upper-level undergraduate students. Consequently, it should have a broad audience among students and scholars in the human rights and development fields.

The first section of the book deals with “concepts.” Although the section contains some interesting ideas, I only summarize them here to discuss the Measurement and Policy sections in greater depth. In the first chapter, Jack Donnelly provides a fascinating and eye-opening historical account of United States involvement in the negotiation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as a discussion of the justiciability of economic rights. Wiktor Osiatyński then offers a novel and interesting approach to justifying rights based on the manner in which the protected needs are met. He argues that only those rights that require government action to fulfill should be protected by rights. Since, for most people, economic needs are satisfied through consensual market transactions, they do not need to be protected by rights (except for those who cannot meet their needs because of misfortune).

In Chapters 4 and 5, Albino Barrera and Michael Goodhart provide instrumental justifications for the enforcement of economic rights. Barrera argues that basic economic need fulfillment is necessary for human capital accumulation and that the accumulation is necessary for efficiency; however, he does not quite complete the argument and say that economic rights are necessary to satisfy economic needs . Goodhart then attempts to demonstrate that economic rights are necessary for emancipation and to be free from economic domination. In Chapter 6, Philip Harvey explores the quantitative dimension of the right to work and challenges the mainstream measurement techniques, arguing that there is a structural job shortage that persists even during boom-times. The article contains some very interesting data analysis and suggestions for alternative unemployment measures.

The measurement section of ECONOMIC RIGHTS will be of interest to anyone interested in research on global poverty regardless of whether they are on board with the rights-based approach of the book. The recurring theme throughout the section is the call for more disaggregated data, particularly cut along lines of traditional discrimination such as gender. Important information is lost in the use of such highly aggregated measures of economic welfare as GDP per capita or mortality and literacy rates at a national level and, in particular, they can obscure systematic and oppressive discrimination. In Chapter 9, Mwangi S. Kimenyi enhances the set of tools for measuring distributional effects by defining “pro-poor growth” and identifying a correlation between income inequality and pro-poor growth.

One of the distinctive measurement challenges faced by economic rights advocates is the “progressive realization” requirement of Article 2(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, under which countries are obligated to “undertake to take steps . . . with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights [recognized in [*626] the ICESCR].” In order to adjudicate compliance with the requirement of the covenant, there must be some operational definition of what progressive realization looks like. Audrey R. Chapman and Clair Apodaca provide thoughtful discussions of the challenges of operationalizing “progressive realization.”

Recognizing that poor countries are less able to satisfy economic rights than poor ones, David L. Cingranelli and David L. Richards offer an interesting way of measuring the “effort” that a country is making toward satisfying those rights. They use the residual from a regression of a quality-of-life index on a country’s GDP and status with respect to the ICESCR as a measure of the government’s “effort” to meet basic needs conditional on its resources. The approach is similar in spirit to the idea that the Solow residual, the remainder after capital and labor are accounted for in determining national output, represents “technology.” As with the Solow model, labeling the regression residual “effort” is misleading, since it is reflects everything that is unexplained by the covariates. Nevertheless, it is important to identify a country that is underperforming relative to what we would expect based on its national income and treaty commitments, and at the very least should prompt investigation into the content of the residual.

The chapter by Shawna Sweeney seems somewhat out of place in the context of a section largely devoted to the difficult methodological and practical issues surrounding the measurement of economic rights violations. Rather than a methodological contribution, it is a substantive attempt to identify the correlates of women’s economic rights. Sweeney utilizes a country-level panel dataset and estimates an ordered logit model in which changes in a women’s economic rights index within a country are a linear function of variables that include the colonial history of the country, presence of military conflict, population, its output and openness to trade, and measures of political secularism and democracy. Based on what is reported in ECONOMIC RIGHTS, the results are extremely difficult to interpret. It is simply too hard to tell where the identification of the correlations is coming from. A single year? A small subset of countries? What is the distribution of the index of women’s rights across countries? Unlike ordinary least-squares regressions, the distribution of the women’s rights index matters for the ordered logit. Why were the errors not clustered at the country level to allow for within-country correlation in shocks? In general, cross-country comparisons rarely permit clean identification of causation. The analysis in this chapter does yield some interesting correlations that warrant further investigation, but it is somewhat regrettable that Sweeney occasionally slips from discussing the predictiveness of certain variables into ascribing causation or determinacy.

The final section of ECONOMIC RIGHTS is devoted to “policy issues” and contains several excellent essays that illustrate the greatest strength of the volume: the insights and views of scholars with decades of experience in the human rights field and first-hand observations of what works, and what doesn’t, in increasing freedom from deprivation. [*627]

The first two chapters of this section, by Sigrun Skogly and Mark Gibney, and Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, discuss the availability of international law to marshal trans-national support for economic rights. Skogly and Gibney argue that obligations to assist poorer countries in upholding economic rights arise from existing international law. Fukuda-Parr provides a very careful analysis of strengths and weaknesses of the targets and indicators in Goal 8 of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. David Forsythe provides a fine counterpoise in Chapter 14, arguing that there are no international rights to assistance. He also thoughtfully discusses the proper expression of the priority of economic rights, noting that while education, for instance, is not constitutionally protected in the United States, that it has risen to the level of being a “constitutive commitment” that is a de facto right. This sort of flexibility in thinking about the implementation of economic rights is a valuable contribution to the volume.

Susan Dicklitch and Rhoda E. Howard-Hassman contribute a wonderful article in which they describe the effects of macroeconomic structural adjustment policies in Uganda and Ghana, documenting the beneficial effects of the reforms on productivity, infant mortality rates, life expectancy, literacy, and access to food and water. These reforms included enforcing private property rights and privatizing state-run enterprises, thereby reducing the ability of leaders to consolidate power and purchase political support through bloated government payrolls and statist economies. The piece is notably non-ideological, and
Dicklitch and Howard-Hassman provide extensive details about the institutions and economic conditions under which Ghanaians and Ugandans lived pre-reform and how the reforms affected incentives and outcomes. One of the other virtues of the article is the attention it draws to issues of corruption, instability, and political economy, which are otherwise largely absent in the book. The remarkable “on the ground” detail they report is exactly the sort that is often ignored in high-level policy discussions. Much more of this kind of research is needed.

The final two essays in ECONOMIC RIGHTS overlap in their discussion of child labor and workers’ rights, although they focus on very different aspects. Peter Dorman argues that in light of the economic cost of workplace injury, that there should be no presumption that higher standards for workplace safety would present an obstacle to growth in the developing world. Second, he attempts to estimate the economic costs and benefits of abolishing child labor. While the quantitative results are, in my view, highly speculative, the estimation is valuable because it makes an attempt to figure out how costly child labor might be (by one metric). Dorman raises important questions about labor market institutions which are, in any event, tragic.

Yet, we live in a world filled with tragic choices and Kaushik Basu provides a valuable warning about the “fallacy of binariness.” He argues that, in our rush to do away with terrible things, we must not be naïve about the possibility of still more terrible things following in their wake, and we cannot afford to be ideological when there are unavoidable [*628] conflicts between rights and other important objectives, and even as between rights themselves. More generally, he argues that we need to be wary about the tendency toward deontological principles and away from welfare considerations when thinking about policy for those in far-off lands. But the real contribution from Basu’s excellent article is a framework for thinking about when individual rights should be alienable, a contribution that is worth discussing briefly because it highlights a tension in the economic rights approach. The inquiry begins by discussing the consequences of allowing people to contract over a certain rights, such as the right to be free from hazardous working conditions. Individuals will sort; those who are willing to trade this right for greater compensation will do so, while those who value this right more highly will work at a lower wage in safer conditions. Those who are not willing to work in hazardous conditions receive a lower wage than they would if everyone were prohibited from trading this right and, in a sense, they pay a price. In answering the question whether a given right should be alienable, “maintainable” in Basu’s terms, we should ask whether it is the kind of right that people should have to pay a price to keep. But then we are left with the question about how to determine which rights are maintainable and which are inviolable, i.e. non-tradable. The analysis will likely be determined by two issues: how much the right is valued intrinsically, and how high a price people who do not want to trade the right will have to pay. It is hard to see how these questions can be answered in the abstract, or why they could better be answered by legal scholars or judges than through a political process that incorporates the facts on the ground, and the values of the community.

Basu does not, in the end, arrive at many firm conclusions, and neither had I after reading ECONOMIC RIGHTS. But then, the problems of global poverty and economic deprivation admit of no easy solution, and many of these essays do an excellent job of illuminating promising avenues of research and critically reflecting on an approach to economic injustice that is worthy of serious consideration.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Andrew T. Hayashi.