Function, not Form: Defining Targets for Justice in the Post-2015 Development Agenda

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are set to expire, and expectations around the inclusion of justice and good governance in a post-2015 development framework couldn’t be higher.

While the MDG approach of global goals, targets and indicators remains controversial, the development framework has been useful in catalyzing action and tracking progress in certain areas. Advocates suggest that the limited number of eight original goals and short 15-year period of implementation were effective in motivating progress towards poverty alleviation and securing gains in health and education (though causation is contested).

Yet, issues of justice and governance were notably absent in this framework. The Millennium Declaration had initially included reference to such themes, resolving to “strengthen respect for the rule of law … in national affairs” and arguing that poverty alleviation ultimately depends on “good governance within each country.” In the end, however, these issues were determined to be not as measurable as health or education outputs and not incorporated into the development framework.

UN member states, UN agencies and civil society are now all pushing to incorporate justice and governance into a new development framework. The UN Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Framework took an important first step: the panel embraced a broad governance agenda with specific goals and targets on rule of law and good governance.

The High-Level Panel endorses the views expressed by the nearly million people around the world who took part in the UN’s global ‘World We Want’ survey, which reveals that “honest and responsive government” ranks third in global priorities, after better education and health care. The General Assembly finally entered the post-2015 fray in September to “reaffirm the importance of promoting human rights, good governance, the rule of law, transparency and accountability at all levels” in its Outcome Document from a special session on the MDGs.

As momentum grows for incorporating justice and governance in a post-2015 development framework grows, policy conversations are moving from general aspirations to specific questions of implementation and measurement.

Many targets and indicators have already been suggested. The HLP proposes illustrative targets in the area of legal identity, the reduction of violent deaths and accessible, independent, and well-resourced justice institutions. The international nongovernmental organization Namati recommends legal identity and accessible systems of dispute resolution as targets; Saferworld similarly lays out a host of targets and indicators.

Suggestions to date no doubt have merit and are based on thoughtful analysis of justice issues. Indeed, we’ve made great strides in better understanding issues of rule of law and justice—through diverse methodological tools including administrative data, legal needs studies, perception surveys, expert surveys and qualitative research.

Yet fundamental uncertainties remain. Progress towards rule of law and access to justice is non-linear and takes place on timelines and trajectories we don’t fully understand. There is wide-spread recognition that there is no ideal or best-practice justice system; instead function and performance is determined by a variety of historical, sociological, political and economic factors. Because justice and rule of law are delivered through a broad array of institutions—state, non-state and hybrid—a unitary focus on ‘the justice sector’ is unlikely to deliver meaningful justice outcomes for users. It’s the function of justice and rule of law that matters, not the form.

Can the post-2015 development framework take into account these complexities?

We believe it can, provided it embraces meaningful participation at the national level. We should support diverse national groups to nominate and articulate development challenges they face in their daily lives and collaboratively suggest paths to progress. While the UN’s global ‘World We Want’ survey offered valuable perspective of priorities, we now need to engage the tremendous capacities of these, and other, actors to participate in prioritization.

A wide spectrum of states and development partners have recognized that it is often the process by which national priorities are developed which ultimately determines their success. In Cambodia, the government and development partners supported the creation of the Cambodian Arbitration Council to find practical solutions to labor disputes based on “legitimacy and content forged through a domestic political process that all sides can own and uphold.” In Ukraine, community legal centers provide a discursive space for national and local government, civil society and citizens themselves to come together to guarantee the types of justice users need. And the list goes on.

The lesson from these experiences is surely not that internationally-driven targets must require non-binding arbitration for labor disputes or a certain model of local justice delivery. We know justice looks different in different places and the path towards progress is uncertain. Indeed, rule of law and justice are “inherently [sites] of contestation.”

The post-2015 development framework should embrace such complexity and support contextually-relevant strategies to promote spaces for deliberation and participation. In other words, the process of reforms matters as much as the content. How might we achieve this?

  • The framework should be open to variance across countries. The value of the MDGs is not cross-country comparability, but instead the ability to track national priorities over time. The same should be true of the post-2015 development framework. Global goals must be articulated under the framework, but there should be opportunities for regional and national variance at the level of targets and indicators. We should build on existing national strategies—from poverty reduction strategies to development plans—to support nationally agreed priorities that drive progress toward agreed upon global goals of inclusive justice and good governance.
  • We should focus on improving how data is gathered and used. As Jonathan Glennie of ODI wrote in early October, the High Level Panel's talk of a ‘data revolution’ alone is no silver bullet. But strengthening the ability of governments and civil society to gather and analyze new sources of information can help promote evidence-based programming and ensure that strategies can adapt in near real time as conditions change.
  • Accountability matters. The new development framework should consist of locally relevant targets and indicators that can expand vertical and horizontal accountability. Citizens should be enlisted to help monitor and participate in a future development framework.

These are but three ideas. In the months and years to come we should resist the temptation to sacrifice what we know about development for what we can easily measure.

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