Legal information building and sharing in the Arab world

Joyce Hakmeh

Head Research, Networking and Development (RND) Unit | Arab Center for the Rule of Law and Integrity

Aug 20 2012

In the Arab world, as in many other developing regions, the path to reform can be long and rocky. As a person working in development for years, you start wondering: what have we changed? What has been the impact of our efforts? Have we actually contributed to the goals we are striving for? Are we proceeding within the path of reform?

Amongst various aspects of reform, legal information building and sharing is a relatively tangible area where results can be measured, benefits can be reported and sustainability can be monitored.

In recent years, many Arab governments have been trying to introduce and apply the ‘e-government’ concept by increasing access to legal information such as laws, court documents, administrative forms, etc. To increase efficiency, this effort also entailed digitalizing and automating records and legal processes. This positive movement, however, has not been without its challenges, impeding the optimal success of this approach.

What challenges? Illiteracy, to begin with, is an obvious obstacle. In some countries, the lack of digital infrastructure limits access to the internet and thus the usefulness of online government. Additionally, the public sector in the Arab region has not traditionally had a role in technology innovation and implementation. Thus, engaging with the private sector for aid and support became indispensable. This dependence limited governments’ capacities to autonomously initiate, implement and monitor technology-based initiatives. Also, due to a low level of innovation in technology and a lagging IT industry, not only the public sector had to rely on the local private sector, but also on foreign private actors. How to maintain and sustain new legal information databases is an additional challenge. All too often the related IT products have been developed and launched without systematic and systemic maintenance and sustainability plans, thus limiting the lifespan of these products which ultimately become outdated and obsolete.

What Success Stories? Despite the challenges outlined above, various projects aimed at increasing access to legal information in Arab countries have been successful, mainly due to effective cooperation between Arab governments, the international community, NGOs and the private sector. Efforts of countries such as Syria, Morocco, UAE and Kuwait, coupled with some UNDP programmes (e.g. Iraqi Legal Database), were acknowledged and recognized as success stories because of their added value and their contribution to strengthening the rule of law establishment in the countries they targeted.

Which way forward? Establishing access to legal information consolidates the rule of law, fosters development and encourages investment in the economical sector. Arab governments are still facing many hurdles in this area that need to be crossed. The international community has a very important role to play to assist these governments in this process: investing more in technology and communication training; continuing the financial and technical aid; promoting and popularizing the use of online legal information, to mention just a few things. But more importantly, governments and citizens in the target countries need to acknowledge that legal information building and sharing is vital, especially in the current process of fundamental rule of law reform.

For the full paper on “An overview on Legal Information Building and Sharing in the Arab world” from the “Innovation in Rule of Law” report see this link.

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