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Painstaking Path toward Better Justice Systems

  • Many countries, despite years of development effort, are still governed by weak institutions
  • New research supports a gradual, context-specific approach to boosting a country’s administrative capabilities
  • In practice: the World Bank’s Justice for the Poor program

April 13, 2011—Many countries, despite years of development effort, are still trapped in poverty and governed by weak institutions. At the current pace, for example, it would take decades for Haiti, Afghanistan or Liberia to reach India’s level of governance, and even longer to reach Singapore's.

One of the most difficult things to get right are justice systems and administrative structures that allow smooth functioning of everything from land titling, to local policing, to labor laws, and credit systems. Too often, ambitious development plans in the neediest countries go awry and important reform programs fail to deliver. And, indeed, well-intended plans sometimes generate more of the very conflict they are aiming to stop.

Why is there such a mismatch between expectations and performance? Research included in the newly-released The World Development Report 2011: Conflict, Security, and Development says two major flaws are to blame. First, “big development” often pushes for pre-determined solutions to problems, but some countries may not yet have the administrative capacity to make the new systems work. Second, donor demand for short-term gains encourages the use of output indicators that create a sometimes superficial impression of success. This can have the unintended consequence of masking long-term problems and perpetuating repeated failures.

"Failed implementation has largely been treated as a minor flaw, a treatable and transitory mistake," says Michael Woolcock, lead social scientist at the World Bank’s Development Research Group, who conducted the research with Harvard Kennedy School’s Lant Pritchett and Matt Andrews. "And sometimes it is. But repeated implementation failures across an array of activities are not 'mistakes' but the visible manifestations of failure in the underlying theory of change."

The research is important because implementation of development goals, often a weak link, has received little attention in the development community. Yet persistent development failures and poverty are linked to prolonged conflict and extreme violence, and can undermine the credibility of broader development goals.

Woolcock supports a gradual, context-specific approach to boosting a country’s administrative capabilities. What is the current system? How do different players – governments, non-governmental organizations, international agencies, and others – interact within the system? For example, how do they handle land administration and labor disputes? And, because it takes time to bring about change, those who set development goals for governance and justice reform should be in it for the long haul, he says.

A research and operational program based on that approach is well underway. The World Bank’s Justice for the Poor program, which Woolcock co-founded in 2004, recognizes that many societies are governed by rules systems that are complex, fluid, unwritten and difficult to measure. Those systems may also be based on different—sometimes competing—sources of legitimacy.

The program doesn’t try to bring about greater "compatibility" between those systems and Western legal institutions. Instead, it focuses on generating context-specific evidence to better understand how the existing systems operate and supporting the creation of institutions that give otherwise marginalized groups a stronger voice in managing the conflicts – conflicts that accompany processes of institutional change. A book providing much of the basis for the global Justice for the Poor program, Contesting Development has just been published (Yale University Press. $55).

"The goal is to facilitate justice reform from the bottom up, and to do so as part of the development of a coherent national justice strategy," Woolcock says. "We find that governance and justice reform requires a patient, adaptable and local approach. We begin by spending extended time upfront trying to understand what’s going on at the local level. Our research teams live there and facilitate an ongoing policy dialogue with a range of stakeholders. We try to build an evidence base that helps the key actors determine what the problems are, where the binding constraints are and how prevailing institutions support or impede resolutions to those problems. We then help prioritize an array of context-specific solutions that are politically supportable and implementable."

The program, a joint justice-reform project between the Legal Vice Presidency, Development Research Group, Social Development, Public Sector Governance and the World Bank Institute, is now operating with more than 50 staffers in Kenya, Sierra Leone, Indonesia, Cambodia, the Philippines, and four other island countries in the Pacific.

In Sierra Leone, for example, the program conducted a two-year study on local justice and governance systems, analyzing a complex system with traditional (chieftaincy) and modern institutions (councils, for example) overlapping each other. Under the hybrid system, answers for justice often aren’t predictable and defy a formula-driven solution from outsiders.

Hybrid arrangements have emerged in part because the current system is so fragmented and overwhelmed. "The few well-trained lawyers it has—sometimes less than one per million people in rural areas—simply cannot meet the demand," Woolcock says. That means most poor people don’t have access to a lawyer or a functional, equitable legal system.

To fill the gap, Justice for the Poor helps support a grassroots organization, Timap for Justice, which trains and employs community paralegals to help the poor deal with advocacy, mediation and education, among other matters. This year, Timap is working with the Open Society Institute and the government of Sierra Leone to scale up this work at the national level.

For the Justice for the Poor program, the countries where researchers and staffers work, though diverse, face common institutional challenges. In Indonesia, where the program began, Justice for the Poor is helping the government draft and implement a national strategy to improve the poor’s access to the justice system. It has also experimented with a number of pilot initiatives, especially to address the concerns of women, to forge the middle ground between state and traditional justice systems.

In Solomon Islands, where chronically underfunded and understaffed state institutions struggle to resolve competing claims for land and the rents from natural resources, the World Bank is helping build an evidence base to inform the government’s Justice Delivered Locally program. That program seeks to offer citizens more accessible and reliable justice services—a serious challenge when many people live in remote areas.

In Cambodia, which has been grappling with difficult labor issues in its nascent textile industry, the program has worked with the government, the International Labor Organization and the private sector to set up a mediation program. The goal for the long run, Woolcock says, is to help the country build an effective labor law and credible dispute-resolution systems of its own—not simply importing institutions from elsewhere.

The success of Justice for the Poor shows that justice reforms must be addressed in their local context, and that justice isn’t just about courts and constitutions. All mainstream development activities, Woolcock says, such as building roads, schools and credit systems, inherently alter existing rules, expectations and relationships between powerful groups. This creates conflicts and puts more pressure on justice institutions.

"Some development problems lend themselves to 'best practices' and standardized toolkits that can be readily replicated and scaled up, but justice reform isn’t one of them”, he says. “In this sector, especially at the local level, thinking this way is itself part of the problem."


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