Notes from the Field

Developing Rule of Law

October 29, 2008

From 1985 to 1989 I was a Senior Fulbright Scholar and a law consultant to The Asia Foundation’s office in Colombo, Sri Lanka.  During that time, I also taught in Sri Lanka’s law schools. Last December, I was back in Sri Lanka and learned that a book I wrote during my days there, An Introduction to International Law from a Sri Lankan Perspective (Open University Press: 1989), was still the standard text.  I suppose that I should have been flattered, but I was disappointed and saddened that they weren’t using a newer, updated text.  There have been no updates to the book in nearly twenty years, two decades in which incredible developments in international law have taken place.

The Asia Foundation is deeply concerned about the quality of legal education across the developing world.  In the 1950s, we and the Ford Foundation became pioneers in supporting improvements in legal education abroad. During the 1960s and early 70s, this support was criticized as “legal imperialism.”  That mainstream critique was not only over-stated, as some of the authors of the criticism would admit today, it was wrong.  Over the years since my time in Colombo, I’ve had the privilege to meet many legal scholars from both the U.S. and developing countries who were recipients of support from The Asia Foundation and the Ford Foundation. Today, these former grantees are policymakers and leaders in legal education, politics and business.  They have made remarkable contributions to their countries.  In conversation, they often point to their experience as grantees as defining moments that changed the course of their careers.

State-building efforts in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Timor Leste and elsewhere have revealed, over time, the importance of excellence in legal education.  After long neglect by many development organizations, legal education is slowly coming back as a vital investment if we are to take strengthening the rule of law seriously.  It’s an essential building block to creating a credible group of legal professionals.  This is where their capacity is shaped in formative ways, not in continuing education or judicial training.

Legal education is unavoidably a long-term investment. In Afghanistan — a country in desperate need for more quality, higher level education institutions –  the challenge is timely. In response, Stanford Law School started the Afghanistan Legal Education Project, and I advise on the project.  You can read more about the project here.

Erik Jensen is The Asia Foundation’s Senior Legal Advisor, a lecturer at the Stanford Law School and co-director of the law school’s Rule of Law Program. He is also an advisor to Stanford’s Afghanistan Legal Education Project.

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