Art by Brian Mede
A couple of weeks ago, an acquaintance through Twitter asked if I’d take a look at an article he’d written and give him my feedback. The piece is called “Justice like a River: Why development needs justice” and was published in Policy in Public, a journal from Cardus, a Canadian think tank dedicated to the Christian faith and the common good. The author is Jamie McIntosh, founder and executive director of IJM Canada, partner of the US-based International Justice Mission.
Not only was Jamie kind enough to ask for my thoughts, he emphasized that he wanted my honest feedback — be it good, bad, or ugly. So I hope that neither he nor you, the reader, are too disappointed when I say that I loved the article.
He makes the compelling case, as the subtitle says, that development needs justice. For international development initiatives to take root and bear lasting fruit, countries need functional justice systems that work for everyone — and especially for the poor.“People cannot flourish, economically or otherwise, in the face of pervasive injustice,” he writes. “A failed justice system precludes any kind of sustainable development.” This doesn’t replace the need for development initiatives, he says, but “functioning justice systems are an inseparable companion to development.”
He gives specific examples of how dysfunctional justice systems rob the poor and in so doing, rob the country of its potential.
- Bonded laborers are unable to benefit from any development initiatives, because they lack basic freedoms. On top of the devastating toll that bonded labor takes on people and families enslaved, the exploitative practice also serves to stunt the economy due to unpaid labor and diminishes the country’s tax base.
- Without protection from land grabbing in parts of Africa, women — and especially widows — are tremendously vulnerable to exploitation. Among other things, this drastically lowers agricultural output, as women in Africa are often responsible for farming.
- Finally, when women and girls do not fear for their safety, they can better ensure they can avoid contracting HIV/AIDS from men who know they can otherwise get away with raping them or sexually assaulting them.
The challenge, of course, lies not in passing laws to protect the poor. Rather, the problem is that good laws often go unenforced. So IJM helps equip local law enforcement and court systems to work effectively and fairly in ways that serve the most vulnerable. It’s very important work. And it reminds me of something I’ve heard recently from a couple of people I really respect, who describe how NGOs, for all the good they do, can sometimes make matters worse for the long term well-being of a developing country by working around corrupt or inept governments, rather than working to reform them. In other words, it’s easy to pay a fine and get on with your child health program; it’s much more difficult to work to reform structures so that bribes don’t get in the way of such things. Paul Farmer of Partners in Health said it in reference to Haiti on NPR’s Fresh Air and Kurt ver Beek of Association for a more Just Society said it related to his work in Honduras during this TV interview (scroll to the bottom to find it).
It’s obvious that I think the article is excellent, and that it’s representative of the very important work that IJM does around the world.
Here, then, is my attempt at critique.
First, a clarification. Jamie writes, “Helping to build effective public justice systems in the developing world must be part of the development agenda of multilateral institutions, non-governmental organizations, and national foreign aid programs” (emphasis mine). If he means that these institutions and organizations need to recognize the importance of good public justice systems, I agree. Likewise, if he’s saying they ought to learn from and partner with those committed to strengthening public justice systems, we’re in agreement. But I don’t think that every organization necessarily needs to make this part of their respective agendas. NGOs would be wise to ensure that they don’t undermine what others like IJM are doing, but there’s room for mutually enriching specialization. No one would say that IJM must make microfinance part of its agenda, I don’t think, or that IJM must respond with humanitarian assistance after a hurricane. And I am fairly certain that Jamie would agree with all of this, though that line is a bit misleading, at least to my mind.
Second, and lastly, a question. Or, perhaps, a possibility. Jamie founded IJM Canada, he writes, in order to mobilize the country “to help ensure the protection of the global poor through functional justice systems.” As readers of this blog are aware, I’ve written a great deal about what Canadian mining companies are doing throughout the Americas and around the world. A lot of it undermines “the protection of the global poor” by working closely with governments so eager for foreign investment that they disregard the rights of some of its very poorest: indigenous people living in rural areas. Though IJM has done some work on land rights, to my knowledge it has yet to tackle the enormous and related issue of mining companies that operate, in many regards, above the law.
Maybe it’s not IJM’s job to take on yet another justice issue. That’s quite possible. But on the other hand, maybe IJM is uniquely poised to work with governments to ensure that in their quest for economic prosperity, they don’t push true development and true justice out of the reach of the poor.