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Key Text Donor Assistance to Justice Sector Reform in Africa: Living Up to the New Agenda?

Author: L-H Piron
Date: 2005
Size: 8 pages (70 KB)

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Is donor assistance to promote justice sector reform grounded in an adequate and appropriate understanding of African realities? Does it complement or conflict with the new poverty reduction agenda? This paper from the Overseas Development Institute outlines the history and current status of justice sector aid in sub-Saharan Africa. Justice sector aid could be a pro-poor, long term, developmental endeavour that contributes to the realisation of human rights, but only if key changes take place.

While total aid commitments to Africa have remained stable, there has been a significant increase in aid for justice sector reform. This reflects Africa-specific developments and increasing interest in justice sector work globally. Donor support changed focus after the Cold War, with the 1994 Rwandan genocide marking a turning point. This includes activities beyond addressing national legal frameworks, such as improving physical infrastructure, supporting legal and judicial training and making legal information accessible. Challenged by the UN-backed Millennium Development Goals, donors have tried to demonstrate how justice sector support can contribute to poverty reduction.

A report by the International Council on Human Rights Policy highlighted donors' failings to date, stressing the need to:

  • Start from the beneficiary perspective, fostering local ownership of reform, using participatory needs assessment.
  • Adopt a right-based approach, emphasising the legal enforcement of human rights claims and the role of institutions in respecting standards. It also stresses the positive duties of the police, prosecutors, courts and others to protect the rights of victims, prisoners and the general public.
  • Recognise that justice is a sector and not a set of separate institutions, requiring strengthening links and improving coordination, including civil society bodies.
  • Give priority to the needs of the poor, vulnerable and marginalised groups. Enhance their access to justice, tackle discrimination, ensure minority participation, recognise indigenous systems and pay attention to women's rights.
  • Improve the effectiveness of the aid relationship. This includes transparency in donor agendas, recognising the long-term process of justice reform, providing flexible responses, respecting local priorities and avoiding imported solutions.

Most donors have responded by amending their policy orientations. DFID has put more emphasis on the experience of insecurity and sector-wide approaches and the World Bank and UNDP are including access to justice as priorities in their programmes. Five key challenges to improve donor support to justice Reform in Africa remain:

  • Sustainable interventions. Mechanisms for project continuity after aid has ceased are essential.
  • Adopting a sectoral approach, rather than focusing on unsustainable institution-based activities. The complexity of justice systems and the multitude of state and civil society institutions with varied vested interests in change must be factored in.
  • Being context-specific: donors must go beyond technical solutions and understand the context for intended reforms. Justice systems are inherently conservative and politically sensitive changes might be needed.
  • Involving non-state actors: In some countries traditional authorities and other non state mechanisms resolve over 80% of disputes.
  • Improving donor habits and incentives. Northern legal experts dominate, often lacking development or Africa experience. There is too much pressure to spend money quickly, sometimes on prestigious events or study tours which serve diplomatic or other political reasons.
  • In addition, rivalries between donors' models based on domestic legal and judicial systems should be avoided. Simple regular sharing of information between governments and donors should take place. More effort is needed to provide aid informed by good development practice, grounded in national ownership and an understanding of African realities.

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Source: Piron, L-H. (2005) ‘Donor Assistance to Justice Sector Reform in Africa: Living Up to the New Agenda?’ Open Society Justice Initiative, New York
Author: Laure-Helene Piron ,
Overseas Development Institute (ODI),