7 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me When I Started Working in Human Rights

For the last four years, my core work has been writing country reports for businesses. If you want to open, say, a shoe factor in Kenya, I’m the guy who tells you that you have to watch out for gender discrimination, low minimum wage and Kenya’s 52-hour workweek, which is above the international standard of 48.

This means I basically spend every day digging through the qualitative and quantitative dirt of some of the world’s most impoverished, challenging and tragic places. After doing this for four years, 65 countries and about 2,000 pages, I’ve learned a few things I didn’t know when I started:

Every country is just as unique and contradictory as yours
You know how long it takes you to explain to foreigners the ins and outs of why your country works the way it does? Between the priorities of law, politics, high culture and the population, not everything fits together the way it should, or how you’d expect. Everyone else’s country takes a while to explain too.

No matter how small, every country contains vast diversity
Even religiously and ethnically homogenous countries contain infighting and disagreements about the principles upon which their country is founded and operates. Not everyone in Denmark loves the welfare state. Not everyone in Saudi Arabia wants women to wear a burka.

Every country contains regional disparities and tensions
I always quip that if there was a European country two meters wide, people on one meter would have a longstanding conflict with people on the other. This is far from unique to Europe. Even in the smallest, landlockedest, most in-need-of-social-harmony countries, people in rural areas will find reasons to resent city-dwellers, people in the highlands will resent people in the lowlands, people on the mainland will resent the islanders, whatever. It’s as predictable as it is wasteful.

Every country has counterproductive cultural practices
In Russia, it’s typical to meet a friend and go ‘two on a bottle’, i.e. split a bottle of vodka between you. In South Korea, refugees from North Korea are shunned as unclean. Dozens of countries still have de facto caste systems. We’d all be better off if we compared ourselves to other countries more often.

Poor people aren’t any more noble than anyone else
There’s a powerful trope among the left that the poor are somehow constitutionally different from the rest of us. They lead simple, humble lives of hard work and peace, and make epic sacrifices so their children can be educated. In the real world, though, poor people are just as inclined to short-term thinking and profit-maximizing as any Wall Street CEO. I’ve heard oil company managers complain that they’ve tried consultations with the impoverished communities where their operations take place, but stopped once they found that the villagers ‘just wanted to get rich.’

Of course they wanted to get rich. In that way, they’re no different than … an oil company.

The fact that poor people in poor countries beat their wives, spend their paychecks on booze and practice gender and religious discrimination doesn’t mean they’re not entitled to development. It just means they’re no different from everyone else. The belief that you’ll crack open the developing world and a bunch of Mother Theresas will spill out is responsible for as many misguided development projects as the belief that welfare mothers will only start looking for work when their benefits run out.

Development isn’t a legal issue, it’s an enforcement issue
The problem isn’t that countries don’t write human rights laws, it’s that countries treat those laws like New York City treats jaywalkers. From India to Indonesia, most countries have impeccable legal frameworks for preventing child labour. There’s just no inspectors to ensure that anyone’s actually following them.

In Indonesia, it’s in the constitution that everyone must be paid a living wage. Norway wishes it had a constitution that protected the environment as watertightly as Paraguay’s. The hard part is implementing the laws, not writing them.

Every country has issues no one wants to talk about
If you read reports by human rights organizations based in Denmark, you wouldn’t know that Greenlandic people are systematically overlooked by the legal system and aid in Copenhagen. Talking to Ugandan NGOs doesn’t necessarily give you a picture of how hard it is to be homosexual in Kampala. The people working to promote development in a given society are also participants in that society, and hold a number of invisible biases as a result.

Every country I’ve researched has a significant problem with discrimination against disabled people, yet very few of them have government ministries or even civil society groups that address this.

None of these things are productive or particularly charming, but now that I know them, I spend less time being disappointed by the generalities and more time being inspired bythe specifics.

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One response to “7 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me When I Started Working in Human Rights

  1. I’m an Australian working on anti-trafficking and migrant labour rights in Viet Nam and yes to all this.

    Most people seem to want clear sides, what is good and evil, who is right and who is wrong. Life is rarely so clear and most issues surrounding human rights are confusing and multilayered.