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Human rights, democracy, culture, sustainability and statistics

by Mel Starrs on June 3, 2009

in Economics

I have a new geek-crush. For those who have not yet come across the inimitable Hans Rosling, I urge you all to head over to the awesome Gapminder website, whose strapline is “Unveiling the beauty of statistics for a fact based world view”.  An incredibly clear way of illustrating facts and figures.

Today, I’m going to look at Hans’ talk on Human Rights and Democracy Statistics. Watch it if you have time (9 mins 51 secs).

If you don’t, the central premise is that there is a weak statistical link between life expectancy, income and democracy. As Hans goes on to explain, this does not mean that human rights should not be pursued, but as a means to an end perhaps they are weak. Fascinating stuff (go on, watch it – he explains it much better than me).

This was interesting to me for a number of reasons. I read Fared Zakaria’s book The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad about 18 months ago, and in it he poses a direct relationship between GDP per capita income and the emergence of democracy. Using the year 2000 as a base, when income >$6000 democracy is highly resilient and for those countries below that threshold he has some rules of thumb as to when democracy is likely to appear. Zakaria makes some important points between the differences in liberty and democracy (the two are not dependent on each other). Another book which offers similar threshold’s is Kenichi Ohmae’s The Borderless World which I read not long after Zakaria. He posits that (using a 1990 base) around GNP$5000 per capita, givernments still have control of information and the ability to mislead poeple. As GNP rises, the power of governments and religions fall and by $26,000 (i.e. Japan in his example) people have access to information and make choices on value and quality (cheapest and best).

Both of these observations have an effect on framing sustainability in different contexts, especially at a global level. In a  strategic, scenario planning sense, it is essential to consider social and economic factors – a technological solution which works in one country make not work in another, and not for purely technical reasons.

The second reason I’m intrigued by Hans’ work is that I’ve been cooking up a theory for a  couple of years now, which would compare a country’s sustainability credentials to it’s ‘cultural dimensions’ as defined by Hofstede (primarily the female/male aspect). I’m sure someone must have done a thesis on this – if anyone knows of a study, please let me know. I can’t find the Hofstede data in Gapminder, but as it isn’t (yet) a time series, I didn’t really expect to see it.

I’ve had so much fun playing with the graphs and animations, I’m sure I’ll come back to Gapminder another day. Enjoy!

  • http://www.elementalsolutions.co.uk Nick Grant

    Good video

    Argument at end similar to that put forward by Steve Pinker when looking at how (e.g.) men and women can be different (overlapping bell curves) but still have equal rights. Otherwise we are on shaky ground when faced with hard data. Thoroughly recommend the Blank Slate by Pinker.

    Thanks

  • http://www.elementalsolutions.co.uk Nick Grant

    Good video

    Argument at end similar to that put forward by Steve Pinker when looking at how (e.g.) men and women can be different (overlapping bell curves) but still have equal rights. Otherwise we are on shaky ground when faced with hard data. Thoroughly recommend the Blank Slate by Pinker.

    Thanks