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Make Rule of Law a Development Goal

by Guest Blogger for Terra Lawson-Remer
February 21, 2014

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the Millennium Development Goals Conference at the United Nations in New York City, September 22, 2010 (Courtesy Reuters/Eric Thayer). U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the Millennium Development Goals Conference at the United Nations in New York City, September 22, 2010 (Courtesy Reuters/Eric Thayer).


Emerging Voices features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is from James A. Goldston, the executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative, which advances the rule of law and legal protection of rights worldwide through advocacy, litigation, research, and the promotion of legal capacity. Here he discusses why rule of law should be included in the post-2015 development agenda. This piece is part of an ongoing Development Channel series on global justice and development.

Since 2000, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have unified and galvanized the fight against global poverty and inequality. By standardizing and building consensus around shared targets, these goals have influenced policy priorities and steered funding for both donors and governments. But despite their strengths and successes, the MDGs have excluded one element crucial to the fight against global inequality: rule of law.

Conflict-affected states – where the rule of law is weak – account for disproportionately high percentages of the world’s infant deaths and poor and uneducated populations. Even in advanced economies, those denied access to justice suffer from higher levels of discrimination in education and other public services. The negotiation of the post-2015 development goals, now underway, offers an opportunity to shift course.

Last June, the idea of including targets for access to justice won the support of the Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. During the sixty-seventh UN General Assembly last September, world leaders affirmed that the rule of law is of “fundamental importance for political dialogue and cooperation among all States and for the further development of the three main pillars upon which the United Nations is built: international peace and security, human rights and development.”

Some governments still resist endorsing goals that use phrases such as “access to justice” or “legal empowerment” for fear of encouraging their citizens to demand more rights. Recent uprisings in Tunisia, Brazil, and Turkey prove that achieving a number of the original MDGs does not prevent major outbreaks of popular discontent; even with poverty on the decline, citizens in developing countries around the world still take to the streets to protest injustice. Making progress on “governance free” development targets is not enough to ensure stability and prosperity.

In recent years, scholars and practitioners have come to see the rule of law and development as equally important elements in improving quality of life. For example, civil society efforts to raise women’s awareness of their marriage rights and responsibilities have helped decrease the size and frequency of illegal dowry payments in Bangladesh. In India, legal aid groups have exposed corruption in the distribution of medical supplies and have helped poor communities protect their water sources and secure housing. Similarly, legal aid and empowerment programs have helped pensioners in rural Ukraine negotiate local bureaucracies and claim state benefits. Low-cost, community-based paralegal groups working in countries from Macedonia to Kenya are helping previously disenfranchised citizens secure legal identity documents, including birth certificates and identification cards, which grant them access to citizenship, education, and health care.

For these reasons, the Open Society Foundations, where I work, calls for the post-2015 development agenda to include targets in five key fields: access to information, legal identity, land and property rights, legal participation, and legal services. These components of justice, important in their own right, are measurable and essential to overall prosperity. Several governments, including Kenya, Egypt, and Papua New Guinea, already track these elements — whether through the collection of data on case volume and duration or survey questions on legal knowledge and access – and others should follow suit.

The rule of law is no less important to development than education and public health. Sustaining open governments; combatting bribery and corruption; and securing equal protection for marginalized groups should be at the center of world efforts to combat poverty and inequality. The MDGs have achieved a great deal. By embracing justice and the rule of law, the second generation of goals can achieve even more. 

Post a Comment 1 Comment

  • Posted by Gringabrazilien

    You say:
    “Recent uprisings in Tunisia, Brazil, and Turkey prove that …”
    Gringa says:
    Have I been asleep?! Uprising in Brazil? Where?
    We had a bunch of protests, mostly led by the middle-classes and a couple of minute extreme political parties. That’s all.
    The only revolution I witnessed recently was the introduction of a live cannon-ball-man at the Rio de Janeiro Carnival Parade, which was awesome, by the way.
    Hope the Conference goes well.
    Best Regards,

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