Of Laws and Chickens

13 Dec 2012

This piece was originally published in the World Economic Forum blog.

By Irene Khan, Director-General, IDLO

I’m not an economist but the principle of supply and demand strikes me as a wonderful principle to apply to justice and the rule of law, and a good yardstick to assess their provision. In much of the developing world, the supply of justice is either well short of demand, or, like the old command economies rule-of law products are thrown at the market regardless of consumers’ needs.

There is a crisis in the rule of law. There is a crisis of funding which creates shortages; there is misallocation of resources which creates distortions, and that in turn leads to a crisis of confidence. Let me outline what that means — and yes, those chickens are coming up.

The rule of law is a smart investment. Law-governed societies are morally desirable and economically functional. They generate security as well as wealth. For this reason, choking off rule-of-law assistance is frankly not a clever thing to do. Yet in times of austerity, those projects are among the first to suffer.

When the money is there, too much of it is poured into legal institutions (yes, the brick and mortar kind) that are too far removed from people.

Fundamental human rights matter but if they are to mean anything to people they must have real meaning in their lives. Until the entire world graduates to the constitutional set-ups of rich countries, justice means ensuring fair outcomes — in concrete, local terms. So in settings where a widow’s right to own chickens, say, is a vital concern, the rule of law must be, first and foremost, about securing a customary right to chickens.

The chickens — you’ll have got this by now — are a basic measuring unit for the ability to live with a semblance of dignity. If we insist on putting in place remote and cumbersome legal systems that don’t work and ignore simple rights that make concrete sense to the poor and marginalized, if no money exists for long-term strategies and what little there is, is misdirected, that’s when confidence wavers. And when confidence wavers, communities and countries waver too.

The rule of law must be less about institutions and more about building people’s confidence in justice systems and enhancing their access to justice. Counting those chickens may sometimes be a good way of measuring the quality of justice.