The role of donors in justice sector reform
Because it was downplayed by many third world countries, donors have taken a leading role in promoting their justice or “rule of law reforms.” On the positive side, this has increased attention to the issues, introduced new ideas and remedies for common problems, and strengthened the hand of local reformers within and outside government. On the negative one, it may give the donors excessive voice in defining needs and specific solutions, thereby reducing country ownership. By now it is abundantly clear that if political and institutional leaders do not buy into reforms, their impacts will be limited, and if only these leaders are involved, they may monopolize any benefits.
All development assistance is inherently political. It may claim to seek improvements for all, but it inevitably alters power and resource distribution at the micro and macro levels. Justice reform is no exception, but unlike traditional programs (e.g. in health, education, infrastructure) it works with institutions (the courts, prosecution, police) with evident political roles and promotes values more likely to stir up political and cultural opposition and so obstruct its aims. The proclaimed failure of prior reforms is doubtless exaggerated, but there are abundant negative examples. They are usually the largest and most ambitious programs. They often contain their own success stories, but it is hard to justify a $3 million loan with a $400,000 grant to an NGO or another $33 million program with the $500,000 spent on mobile courts. Does this condemn programs to a focus on small, local experiments or can donors find some middle ground?
If donors are to do this, they need to absorb some lessons regarding their value added. Obviously part of this value is providing funding, but it is no guarantee of successful change. Large amounts cannot compensate for the lack of a good plan and local commitment to more than spending the money, and smaller programs can still generate waste. The development banks are accused of pushing large loans (their business), but even bilateral donors tend to set funding levels before they identify specific goals, resulting in a mismatch in either direction between the size of a grant and the promised results.
Second, and as a corollary, programs must be organized around realistic results and a commitment to achieving them – this cannot eliminate waste, but is more likely to generate a net positive benefit.
Third, donors excel at facilitating networks and information exchanges; they surprisingly fail to track the results, separate good from useless practices and so count the former as achievements while learning from both.
Fourth, aside from funds (for obvious and rarely admirable reasons) donors are most appreciated when they transfer technical knowledge and skills. They are decreasingly valued as missionaries (promoting their vision of the just society or a legal or technological magic bullet) and would be best advised to avoid that role. There is room for dialogue within and missionaries outside donor programs, but one of donors’ biggest errors may be promoting idealistic solutions even their home countries have not adopted. Third world countries should not and do not want to be treated as unwitting guinea pigs.
Finally, as has been observed countless times, donor timeframes are too short and their ambitions too broad. Under the best conditions, three years is barely enough time to set up an experimental program; testing results and sustainability takes longer, and promoting wider adoption can take a decade. Justice reform, representing roughly two percent of all assistance funding, cannot change the world; it can improve the quality of a basic public service, make it more accessible, and perhaps facilitate, but certainly not produce, advances in other societal goals.