First of all, can you tell us a little about your background — how you got to where you are today?
I've been noticing social injustices all my life and I've always been driven to do something about them. I’ve always been pretty “big-picture” in the way I look at problems, so my approach to addressing injustice has not been to go out at a grassroots level, but to try and fix the overarching systems that cause these issues. At University I studied both psychology and economics as I was interested in the critical influence that economic systems and incentives have on people's behaviour. I then worked as an economist for two decades for a number of New Zealand and international organisations. That taught me about the importance of measurement, the impact of analysis, and - indirectly - what happens without it. What happens is that we end up overvaluing what we measure (e.g. GDP), and undervaluing what we don’t (e.g. human rights!).
It was two jobs ago, when I was working as a Senior Economist at the OECD in Paris, that I first found myself looking for data sets that could help support economic advice to advance human rights, although at the time I didn't realise that that's what I was doing. That exploration eventually led me to realise that there is a major gap in the world's knowledge in this area. As I reached out to others around the world working in this space - people already pioneering the development of human rights measures - I found some kindred souls, and the spark of life for the Human Rights Measurement Initiative (HRMI) was born.
For quite a while I was working part-time on HRMI and part-time as an economist at the New Zealand Treasury. Eventually, in 2016, I resigned from Treasury and jumped into HRMI full-time. It was a big call, given that HRMI had no funding at the time, and there was the real risk that none would eventuate. Since then we’ve made amazing progress and it has been incredibly satisfying to focus my energy on something so fully aligned with my values, where there is potential for real impact and the opportunity to shape meaningful change in the world. However, it is still early days, and while we have received a significant grant from the Open Society Foundations, funding remains an ongoing challenge.
What global challenge(s) are you driven to solve? Tell us about your innovation, venture or work. What are you doing that is different to others in your field? How are you pushing boundaries?
The global challenge that I am driven to solve is the pervasive lack of respect for humanity around the globe and the dysfunction of the systems that contribute to that. There are billions of people who, right now, don’t have sufficient access to basic human fundamentals like food, education, health care, or who live in a country where they can’t say what they think, or advocate for change, for fear of jeopardising their own and their family’s safety. This is one example of what a lack of enjoyment of human rights looks like. Obviously these are complex problems and the solutions are not simple. My experience as an economist has taught me that having good measures of something is an important first step in developing good solutions. This is also evident in so many other fields - just think about climate change, or medical science. In the context of human rights, the fact that the world doesn’t currently have a simple, transparent way to track a country’s performance is a major gap in the evidence-base needed to make progress. HRMI's role is to fill this gap.
Existing human rights data are piecemeal and of varying quality. HRMI's key points of difference are that we are:
Comprehensive – we will produce metrics for the full range of human rights listed in the International Bill of Human Rights. No other comprehensive suite of human rights metrics exists.
Independent – we do not accept funding from governments. Given the political sensitivity of the topic, we consider independence essential to ensuring our metrics are accurate and transparent.
Collaborative – we are drawing directly on the expertise of diverse human rights practitioners in-country (no other producers of country-level data are doing this), and working with leading experts in the field. We know we don't have all the answers ourselves.
Impact-driven - we have a strong innovation framework, and a focus on prototyping new approaches. We will discontinue our metrics if they don’t achieve our objectives of helping to bring about change.
Most of what we are doing is new and pushing boundaries. As far as we are aware, no organisation has ever before attempted to develop a comprehensive set of metrics to track the human rights performance of countries.
Obviously the scope of your work is massively international, what drew you to do this from here in Aotearoa?
Aotearoa is where I am from, and where my family and I live. And fortunately, it turns out that Aotearoa is also an ideal place to base this venture for many other reasons. In particular, measuring Human Rights is a very politically-sensitive project, so basing it in a country like New Zealand which is the world’s least corrupt country, is progressive, and is perceived as being relatively neutral on the global stage, is ideal. I also believe that there is enormous potential for New Zealand to make progress with respect to our own performance on human rights, thereby continuously pushing the boundaries of what is possible.
What are the key areas of the Edmund Hillary fellowship that you think you will gain value from, and why do you think it is a valuable programme for New Zealand?
Because HRMI is a project with such global scope, I have found it easier to find support and funding from elsewhere in the world than locally. This means that working out of New Zealand in this field has sometimes felt a little lonely. I applied for the Edmund Hillary Fellowship in the hope that it would provide me with a more supportive eco-system here in Aotearoa. So far I'm finding that to be the case, and I've got my fingers crossed that some NZ-based funding will eventuate at some point.
I’m looking to gain connections to others who are doing similar things to me, or who want to provide support in some way; inspiration from others who also want to help make the world a better place; and people to share stories with about the challenges we face as entrepreneurs. Why wouldn’t NZ want to attract 100 of the world’s most talented and visionary entrepreneurs to our shores every year? It seems a no-brainer to me.
What do you find inspiring about New Zealand?
It is so easy to stay close to nature. For me, this makes Aotearoa both grounding and inspiring at the same time.
With your exposure to people doing interesting things all around the world, what has been the most surprising thing about New Zealand’s innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem?
As an entrepreneur in a venture that doesn't fit in any of the usual boxes, I wasn't previously very tapped into New Zealand's innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem. Regarding the Edmund Hillary Fellowship ecosystem, I've been impressed by the diversity of the Fellows. I love the fact that the Edmund Hillary Fellowship is not trying to pick winners in particular sectors, but rather focussing on the values and entrepreneurial qualities of the individuals themselves, trusting that they will put those attributes to good use to create global impact from New Zealand in various ways.
What would you say to other entrepreneurs or investors thinking about building or supporting startups in New Zealand?
New Zealand provides a great business and living environment, an incredible resource in terms of indigenous knowledge and ways of connecting, and the fact that we are a small population makes it easy to meet key people in a sector quickly and create synergies.
What do you think the future holds for you and your work in New Zealand?
My vision is for HRMI to become the "go-to" source of data worldwide for tracking the human rights performance of countries, and for our metrics to help promote new & collaborative approaches for solving some of the biggest challenges of the 21st Century.
Idealog has been covering the most interesting people, businesses and issues from the fields of innovation, design, technology and urban development for over 12 years. And we're asking for your support so we can keep telling those stories, inspire more entrepreneurs to start their own businesses and keep pushing New Zealand forward. Give over $5 a month and you will not only be supporting New Zealand innovation, but you’ll also receive a print subscription, an Idealog t-shirt and a copy of the new book by David Downs and Dr. Michelle Dickinson, No. 8 Recharged (while stocks last).