A little more on the rule of law and development debate

by Rhodri C. Williams

A few weeks back, I wrote about some good news, namely the evidence that rule of law efforts – instilling accountability and legal certainty through support to formal adjudicatory institutions – is central to equitable development. As well as some bad news, that being that said evidence was difficult to measure and therefore of lesser interest to those development donors fixated on checking the log-frame boxes.

Since then, a few more iterations of this debate have crossed my desk, both of which underscored the significance of rule of law to development – and particularly the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – and sought to push back on the measurability issue. First was Mo Ibrahim on Project Syndicate with an appeal to African leaders to push for the explicit inclusion of rule of law in the SDG process. Citing concrete cases of local civil society and expert efforts to resolve disputes, title land and prevent corruption, Mr. Ibrahim concludes that:

This is the rule of law in action at the local level, and it is building, often from scratch, a culture in which disputes are settled peacefully and benefits distributed transparently. The alternative – recourse to violence in the face of unequal access to resources – has led to a cycle of political instability in many countries, with the consequent lack of economic development that has come to characterize much of Africa’s recent history.

As the debate on the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals unfolds at the United Nations this year, it is my fervent hope that African governments will endorse the inclusion within these goals of measurable targets for access to justice. To be sure, the dominant themes that are emerging in the UN discussions – jobs, economic growth, infrastructure development, and poverty reduction – are all still desperately needed across the continent. But the rule of law is a fundamental principle that does more than promote economic growth, and it would be a serious mistake not to include it in the SDG agenda.

In a very similar vein, Namati has circulated an open letter to the UN General Assembly promoting attention to rule of law and access to justice in the SDGs. Like Mr. Ibrahim, Namati notes that rule of law efforts are crucial to securing a broad variety of rights. These range from more civil and political rights concerns like freedom from structural violence (the focus of the Gary Haugen Op-Ed I blogged on earlier) to more traditionally economic and social concern such as access to and secure tenure in land. To quote Namati:

Approximately three billion people around the world live without secure rights to what are often their greatest assets: their lands, forests, and pastures.  Increasing demand for land is leading to exploitation and conflict.  Giving communities the power to manage their land and natural resources would reduce poverty and promote sustainable development.  Securing property rights for all individuals, including women, is necessary to improve financial stability and personal safety.

Interestingly, Namati not only note that inclusion of rule of law in the SDGs would be perfectly consistent with many previous UN statements and resolutions, but also rebut the measurability issue head on as one of their central advocacy points:

Where legal empowerment efforts take hold, the results are visible and quantifiable.  Women in Bangladesh who challenge the practice of illegal dowries are reporting greater cash savings.  Due to the work of community-based paralegals, grievances in Liberia are being resolved more equitably, resulting in greater food security. Prisoners in Kenya have returned to jobs and families after successfully appealing their sentences.

The emphasis on “visible” as well as “quantifiable” strikes me as astute. One of the unsatisfying aspects of sheer quantification is that it can be blind to context. Measuring the number of judicial decision referring to international human rights standards is fine, for instance, but do the rulings properly apply the standards or misinterpret them to abusive ends? And who is to be the judge of that, and on what criteria? And in either case how many such decisions actually survive appeal?

Sustained engagement with a particular development setting is not a guarantee of good analysis, but provides an opportunity for sensitivity to context and local dynamics that would not otherwise arise. The results can provide visible evidence for those minded to see it, but whether this will always be quantifiable is another question.

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3 responses to “A little more on the rule of law and development debate

  1. Any TerraNullius readers interested in ‘the rule of law’ in Cambodia and how it applies to NGOs in the country ostensibly to assist poor Cambodians lift themselves out of poverty please visit:

    http://citipointechurch.blogspot.com/2014/02/letter-to-global-development-group.html

    The way in which a Brisbane based church in Australia has abrogated the rights of a materially poor Cambodian family is laid out in some detail.

  2. Thanks James! Cambodia is one of the most troubling cases of development efforts in the absence of rule of law. Its been a while since I wrote about Cambodia on TN and there have been some interesting developments, with the erosion in support for the long-dominant Cambodian Peoples’ Party in the last elections, garment worker strikes and a nascent movement by international chains that buy Cambodian textiles to seek the imposition of better work standards a la Bangladesh. But as you point out (and as noted many times on this blog) international actors also share a significant part of the blame for the dismal situation.

  3. Pingback: TN mellows out at five | TerraNullius

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