Are a company’s efforts to respect human rights working?

That is a question that we often get asked. And certainly not an easy one to answer. It usually comes from human rights champions within companies, working hard to make a difference, but often lacking indicators to know whether their programs on paper are leading to meaningful action in real life; senior leaders, who struggle to know which human rights initiatives they should allocate resources to; investors, who seek to set the ‘good companies’, doing meaningful work, apart from those with initiatives that are poorly designed or implemented; civil society organizations, seeking to evaluate whether a company is taking meaningful steps to address a human rights issue.

Companies tend to focus on what is ‘easy’ to measure…

Time and again, we’ve seen companies using indicators to report on human rights performance that focus on inputs, activities or outputs: the number of people that have been trained on a particular topic; the number of suppliers that have been audited; the ratio of grievances processed to grievances received; a checklist of the policies and processes that they have put in place. These measures give little insights as to whether business practices are changing and whether affected people’s lives are improving.

So, how do we get to outcomes for people?

Human rights interventions vary widely, depending on the impact they are seeking to prevent or address, the context in which the impact may occur, and the level of complexity of the business’ operations and value chain.

However, there is something that all initiatives have in common: they are built to address an issue that has been identified or is believed to exist, by allocating certain resources to actions or processes.

This simple link between cause and effect has been the focus of theory of change approaches (ToC) in the field of development for many years. It is a simple way of thinking that addresses the, often unexamined, space between what we do (activities, programs, initiatives) and the ultimate goals we want to achieve. It forces clarity on what is required at each step to achieve results. A theory of change model stretches us to think about indicators and information needs at all stages in an intervention, and the relationship between them.