Trying to introduce the doughnut to UN HumanRights

The story of a student who thought the doughnut could help quantifying the human right to live in a clean environment.

This is the story of a master’s student who thought the doughnut could help quantifying the human right to live in a in a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment and tried to introduce this idea to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Sounds naïve? I guess it is 😊. But let’s start from the beginning. 


In 2022, I was studying “Innovation, Human Development & Sustainability” at the University of Geneva. Part of the program is a mandatory internship, which I did at the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). As part of the “Methodology, Education & Training Section” I co-organized, hosted, and moderated OHCHR’s fist hackathon “Data Dive”, and helped with mapping data contributing to the work of the UN early warning, prevention, and human rights protection system. So far, so good. 


Since the program I’m enrolled in, is a double degree in cooperation with Tsinghua University in Beijing, in Geneva, I had to write only a smaller, internship-based master thesis because the full academic thesis is part of the curriculum in China. Internship-based meant that the thesis had to have a part about my learnings and contributions to the internship and an academic part that relates to the work of the internship. I struggled a lot with this format. I’m passionate about all kinds of heterodox economics, post-growth, doughnut economics, well-being economy, economy of the common good, etc. and I really wanted to incorporate that in my thesis but it did not at all seem to relate to my work at OHCHR. I just couldn’t find a topic that connected my academic interests with my internship work.


When I started to run out of time, I realized that introducing hackathons to OHCHR is a form of introducing new methodologies to the organization and introducing doughnut economics to OHCHR could be seen as introducing a new methodology too. And there was the topic of my thesis: “Introducing new methodologies to international organizations”. In the process of writing, I analyzed the two following research questions: 

  1. To what extent can the doughnut economic framework capture and quantify the human right to live in a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment? 
  2. What would it take to include a framework like the doughnut into OHCHR’s work?

To answer the second question, I interviewed multiple staff members at OHCHR, which was super interesting.  

Here are some of my findings: 

(Disclaimer: This is only a small internship-based master thesis and the results are not robust enough to be published in any peer-reviewed journal). 

  • From an academic perspective, the doughnut holds the potential to capture and quantify the right to a healthy environment, if indicators and dimensions are chosen carefully during the downscaling process
  • However, scaling up the implementation of the doughnut framework to international organizations is unlikely to happen in the near term, due to a lack of capacity for producing and organizing such a large number of indicators and their respective underlying data
  • Nonetheless the doughnut economic framework may add value to the internal work of OHCHR in specific cases or by providing a strong visual that links to the SDGs
  • The expert interviews provide evidence that hackathons can be a useful tool to implement new methodologies, in particular if there are capacities to continue working on the outputs of the hackathon.


Now, did all this have a lasting impact? Did anything change at OHCHR? Not really, at least not that I know of. But, I got to write about something that matters to me and hear the opinions of thematic experts at OHCHR about doughnut economics, which were very positive! 


If you made it until here, thanks for taking the time to read about my little thesis project. In case this inspired anyone to read the full thesis, feel free to contact me at any time.

# humanrights hashtag_lookup:#humanrights # environmentaljustice hashtag_lookup:#environmentaljustice # methodology hashtag_lookup:#methodology # designthinking hashtag_lookup:#designthinking # innovation hashtag_lookup:#innovation  # academia hashtag_lookup:#academia 




    David Brühlmeier

    Düdingen, Fribourg/Freiburg, Schweiz

    Building bridges for a more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.


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