Are We Ignoring Africa’s Present, or Our Own Past?

Chris Blattman has an excellent new post up about the role that access to justice should play in development and state-building:

“[…]Some people are struck by the similarity of African states to early states in Europe and Asia: weak centers struggling to exert control over wider territories; patrimonial politics; authoritarian control; coups, counter-coups, and revolutions.

I’m more struck by the dissimilarity. The core function of the state is law and order. European and Asian states provided police, military control, and access to justice (of a sort) long before they provided schools, clinics and electricity.

In Liberia, if you need a policeman you must pay him to come to you, since he has no transport. There may only be one or two policeman for an entire district. They get paid at roughly the poverty line, and may not have been trained. Most people don’t have access to a judge other than a local elder, who is not empowered by the state to make binding decisions. Courts are distant, if they exist at all in your district. If you do reach one, court can cost many days wages simply to process the forms and get a hearing, ignoring the side payments that can get your case heard quickly, or turn the verdict in your favor. The one time I looked into a murder case, in Lofa county, I wisely stopped within a few hours after discovering the perpetrator was probably the town’s chief of police.”

This is a topic that I think about fairly obsessively, (though my thoughts are not limited to Africa). Most of the humanitarian-immigration work I’ve done has been for people fleeing from the threat of criminal gangs and other non-state violent groups, so the lack of police protection in their countries of origin is generally a centerpiece of their cases.
Some of those thoughts, in no particular order:

  • We focus too much on institutions, and not enough on who gets access to them. In my experience, in many countries the police are just one more violent group that serves the interests of the elite. Aid workers and researchers who are expats from developed countries may have difficulty seeing the extent of this, because they are elites too. It can be easy to miss how much of a luxury it is to get what you’re entitled to.
  • It is a mistake to assume that the history of the justice sector in developed countries was different. It wasn’t, but the people who suffered as a result were not the ones who wrote the history books, so the issue didn’t come up that often. (Access to state protection was such a serious issue here in the United States, for instance, that we had to go and pass a whole big Civil Rights Act about it. Which had approximately no effect for a really freakin’ long time.)
  • Access to justice, particularly police reform and criminal defense work, is hindered by people’s general lack of excitement about efforts perceived as helping criminals. “More rights for thieves and murderers” is a tough sell.
  • Never underestimate how much people enjoy mob justice. And again, that was totally a thing here too, quite recently.
  • Also, human rights organizations aren’t that interested in helping cops. I think that’s largely because police are so often perpetrators of human rights abuses, so NGOs are squeamish about working on their behalf. But there’s a chicken and egg problem there: policemen themselves usually come from relatively poor and low-status sectors of society, so if no one is willing to protect them, the police are in no position to change themselves into something other than an armed group that serves the whims of the elite.

I think my own ““View I toy with but do not (yet?) hold,” when it comes to law and order, is that we can’t be quite sure if stable, impartial justice institutions are a cause or an effect of the rule of law. (They could be both, of course, but this is a conversation about where to start when we have neither.)

The thing that we like to call the “rule of law” is basically just “a system that solves problems by means other than violence.” To make that work, you need two things: (1) a system, and (2) a means to get people to buy into it.

Institutions like police forces and courts can be a good way to get people to buy into a non-violent system, but you still need a system to buy into. There has to be a there there. If there isn’t, those institutions will reinforce the thing that takes its place.

The line between “friendly neighborhood watch group” and “friendly neighborhood death squad” is a surprisingly thin one.

Amanda Taub

One Comment

  1. "I think my own "“View I toy with but do not (yet?) hold,” when it comes to law and order, is that we can't be quite sure if stable, impartial justice institutions are a cause or an effect of the rule of law."

    Right on, Amanda. All part of the wider power struggle in the development of any society. Courts started in the UK with the King basically making all the calls, along with bargaining with powerful barons. As general people get richer they can bargain, too (e.g. gradual erosion of corruption).

    That's not to say that programmes advocating rights, and pushing the power balance a little in the favour of poor people never work, but that it's an uphill struggle in poor countries (and as you say, not entirely clear which comes first, wealth or justice: most likely they're co-determinant.

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