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The next act for OPERA: Part 1—From where to where?

April 19, 2018
What tools do human rights activists need to better understand, and, more importantly, tackle, the unjust socioeconomic structures that cause so many of the world’s human rights violations? The Center for Economic and Social Rights is excited to embark on a new project over the next six months—the OPERA House—that seeks to answer that question. 
The aim of the project is to help us rethink the approaches we employ to support activists using OPERA, the economic and social rights monitoring framework designed by CESR and developed over the years in close collaboration with partners across and beyond the human rights movement. We believe it’s a project that can only succeed if it’s carried out collaboratively and reflects diverse input, so we’re inviting anyone with an interest in OPERA to sign up to learn more about ways to get involved in the project. 
Where has OPERA come from?
For those not already familiar with OPERA, it is a framework that groups together relevant human rights standards and principles into four dimensions: Outcomes, Policy Efforts, Resources and Assessment. By providing a broad list of questions, OPERA helps design metrics to measure each dimension more systematically. As well as identifying what questions need to be answered, it also suggests various tools and techniques for how to answer them. Although, importantly, these can be adapted to different contexts. 
Our first publication on OPERA came out in late 2012, though it has roots in CESR’s earlier pioneering research. Over the past five years, we’ve shared OPERA with hundreds of activists and practitioners from civil society organizations, national human rights institutions, United Nations mechanisms, and international NGOs. Through our innovative collaboration model, we’ve accompanied partners as they’ve used it. We’ve developed training curricula and additional learning resources on OPERA, as well as the tools and techniques associated with it. We’re also aware that many others beyond our immediate partners are applying and referencing it in their work.
We’ve inspired, and been inspired by, our partners, who have used OPERA to tackle chronic and entrenched economic and social rights violations—from economic crises in Egypt and Ireland to development planning and reconstruction in Kenya, Palestine and New Zealand. These types of violations pose a number of methodological challenges and grappling with them in different ways has shaped the way OPERA has evolved over the years.   
First, we increasingly see the need to incorporate stronger “policy-based” analysis in human rights research, in order to unpack (and identify responsibility for) the root causes of violations. The more traditional “events-based” tools used by human rights activists—such as fact-finding—often focus on documenting symptoms. They struggle to interrogate causes when violations stem from systemic failures to protect or fulfill rights. Recognizing this has helped in refining how to articulate the particular “value add” that OPERA brings to human rights research. 
Second, as we’ve applied OPERA—ourselves and with our partners—we’ve increasingly seen what a fundamental tool data is for policy-based analysis on economic and social rights. Because it can visually and vividly show trends and patterns, data can debunk myths, reveal new insights and, ultimately, expose injustices in the status quo. That said, quantitative data only becomes a compelling way to influence policy when we ask the right questions of numbers and draw appropriate conclusions, in light of complementary qualitative analysis. In response, we’ve incorporated data literacy skills as a core component of our training on how to work with OPERA. 
Third, a number of our recent projects have started to explore how OPERA can act as a tool for “agenda setting,” as well as for research. The “theory of change” behind human rights advocacy can be quite linear: by exposing violations, those responsible will be pressured to change. But bringing sufficient pressure to bear to influence systemic policy change is anything but linear. It involves strategic navigation of different pathways to accountability, building evidence in ways that will trigger desired action. How OPERA can inform advocacy is an emerging question that we’re keen to continue exploring. 

Where do we want OPERA to go next?

In sharing OPERA with our partners and networks, we’ve observed a real collective appetite for approaching advocacy-oriented research more strategically, and for developing and deepening practical skills to support such research, including for effective use of statistics, budgetary analysis and data visualization, among others. The question this project explores is how best we might meet that demand.

We have a solid of body of work on OPERA and its related methodological tools to start from, as outlined above. However, we’re also aware of the challenges that might prevent OPERA from reaching those who could potentially benefit from it. The field of research methodology and human rights monitoring may seem dry, technical or boring. Yet it is instrumental to effective advocacy.  We’re keen to explore how creative methodologies can and have informed impactful advocacy, as well as to experiment with new, more approachable, ways of talking about the exciting innovation happening in this field.  Another area we know needs to be developed further is guidance on applying OPERA to the issues activists are grappling with, particularly in these troubling times when economic and social rights are under increasing attack. In other words, adapting the general model to a specific context.
Our goal, now, is to figure out how best to expand on—and, as the name implies, build a house for—our resources on OPERA. We want OPERA to support robust research that can provide a basis for creative, compelling advocacy on entrenched violations of these rights. Achieving that goal means making our resources on OPERA and its related methodological tools more accessible for a broader audience, available in different languages and more responsive to the diversity of activities being undertaken by civil society groups working at the local, national, regional, and international levels. It also means building stronger relationships of support, solidarity, and learning among activists using OPERA.
But, we also know there are many, many different ways we could go about doing this! In Part II of this blog, we’ll outline the community-based research we’re planning to undertake in this project, to help point us in the right direction. Please remember to sign up if you’d like to learn more about getting involved in it.