Notes from the Field

Better Approaches to Local-Level Justice

April 11, 2012

Over the years, international development assistance in Asia, as in other parts of the world, has included a focus on law and justice as a means for addressing a range of development goals, including poverty reduction, economic growth, and the advancement of human rights. A variety of rationales have been used to try to explain how law and justice interventions contribute to these broader development objectives, including asserted links to peace and stability, state legitimacy, and citizen empowerment. Most recently, the World Development Report 2011 highlighted the role of justice in breaking the cycles of violence, conflict, and fragility that continue to undermine our collective development efforts.

A Just Alternative: Providing access to justice through two decades of Community Mediation Board in Sri Lanka

At a community mediation board, a diverse range of community members gather to discuss local-level justice concerns. Photo by Udaya Wijesoma.

The problem is that like most aspects of governance, concepts like law and justice are fuzzy and hard to define. These terms can mean different things to different people, depending on the values and experiences that inform their perspectives. To make things more complicated, the relationship between law, justice and a country’s development pathway is even harder to pin down. In fact, the precise nature of any causal relationship among these concepts remains contested.

Perhaps surprisingly, given how long the international development community has been grappling with these uncertainties, there is still limited empirical evidence available to inform our understanding of why and how law and justice is significant to development processes and what kinds of external law and justice interventions are effective. As a result, international development strategies and programming choices are often contingent on value-laden assumptions and assertions that in many cases go untested.

Even more surprising to observe is the growth of donor investment in law and justice over the last five to 10 years, even in the face of less than concrete results. However, over this same period we have started to see an increasing focus on the effectiveness of policy and program responses in these areas, linked to broader debates about aid effectiveness and growing concerns about the relationship between conflict, fragility, and development. Such concerns have, in part, led to a shift in attention toward law and justice issues at the local level, including a particular focus on “informal” and non-state justice mechanisms (including community-based, customary, and traditional institutions and processes).

This shift reflects the frustration of many donors due to the lack of tangible impact that more conventional institutional-strengthening assistance has yielded, particularly given the political dynamics shaping the functioning of state-based law and justice institutions in fragile and conflict-affected places. The shift is also linked to a growing realization that law and justice mechanisms at the local level are often more geographically proximate, affordable, and legitimate in the eyes of the people who use those systems, when compared to “formal” or state-provided alternatives. This is an area where The Asia Foundation has focused much of its own law and justice programming, including long-term support for community mediation processes in Sri Lanka and Nepal, as well as community legal aid and paralegal services in Timor-Leste, post-tsunami Thailand, and Laos.

However, all law and justice systems – whether operating at the local or national level, whether state-provided or community-driven – share in common a complex trade-off across dynamic political, economic, cultural, and social factors that can be difficult to understand from the outside. The Asia Foundation has grappled with these issues for many years, prompting our support for law and justice perception surveys in places like Timor-Leste and Indonesia, legal sector mapping in Sri Lanka, and legal empowerment analysis in Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Pakistan, to help strengthen the evidence base for our own programs, as well as to inform a broader range of development stakeholders. But more needs to be done.

Currently, there are a range of research-based institutions, donors, and other development organizations trying to illuminate where assumptions stop and empirically-based hypotheses begin, with a view to addressing key knowledge gaps and building a stronger evidence base for decision-making about development assistance priorities and approaches, particularly in relation to security and justice in fragile and conflict-affected settings.

Last week, The Asia Foundation hosted a 2-day roundtable discussion with over 20 development practitioners, researchers, and policy-makers to take stock of these efforts. Participants – including representatives from AusAID, USAID, and the World Bank, researchers from the Overseas Development Institute, Canada’s International Development Research Centre, Harvard’s Kennedy School and the University of London (SOAS), and Asia Foundation experts from six countries – discussed the latest thinking and strategies for improving the effectiveness of international development assistance targeting local-level justice. The group critically reflected on our current research and respective work priorities, and identified and explored how we might collaborate in the future.

A Rountable discussion on local-level justice hosted by The Asia Foundation

Participants discuss strategies for improving the effectiveness of international development assistance targeting local-level justice at the April 5-6 roundtable, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Photo by Whitney Legge.

Notwithstanding the diversity of individual and institutional perspectives and experiences around the table, it was clear that the inherent complexities of trying to understand and support a constructive relationship between law, justice, and development require us to be more empirically driven, more context-based, and more conscious of the values that drive our work. We need to think about law and justice issues based on the specifics of each context, and with a greater reference to history and what has come before.

It was also clear that to become more effective, we need to look at law and justice issues, not as an isolated set of institutions or as a “sector,” but as a range of principles and value-based systems that form part of the overall political, social, cultural, and economic drivers of development. Such an approach demands that we think laterally and draw on cross-disciplinary expertise – not just lawyers, judges, court administrators, or police officers, but political scientists, sociologists, economists, peace and conflict specialists, and others – to help understand how issues of law and justice are helping or hindering development and how this might be changing over time.

Kirsten Bishop is the director of The Asia Foundation’s Law and Justice Programs in San Francisco. She can be reached at kbishop@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

One comment on this post:

  1. I emphatically agree that development of any country do depends on the grass root level justice.

    However, it is more important if community cohesion is on place. Whoever have interest to violate the law do effect communities in either way to create a hostile environment. That what happens in real terms in developing countries or even developed countries.

    Once community is together and aware of their rights and they know that rule of law must need to be there and equally treatment must need to be embedded in local establishment, local communities plays a pivotal role.

    Muhammad Naeem ul Fateh, PhD

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