Saturday, March 20, 2010

Helping those who help themselves

Last week, I attended a workshop on security sector reform (known as SSR in the biz – and I am talking about working with developing countries to reform their police and justice systems, etc, rather than financial markets ….). Of course, one of the big issues in undertaking this kind of exercise is local engagement – we shouldn’t just be importing “our” system into someone else’s context, so the idea is that the locals should be the ones driving the process. This seems like a no-brainer in a supposedly post-colonial world, and echoes some of what I have recently read about the need to integrate traditional justice in Afghanistan.

But, it gets tricky in practice. First of all – which locals are we engaging? The government and the people could have very different interests. In a simulation that we did as part of the workshop, the representative for civil society was pushing for transitional justice, while everyone in the government, who would be implicated by any kind of truth-telling process, were resisting. Or, there may be a rural/ urban split in which a few elites want one thing, and everyone else wants something else. Traditional justice, while widely-used, could be based on a gender or class hierarchy that doesn’t respect human rights. Can we, as a country that supports universal equality, help to develop a system somewhere else that undermines it?

Next, as well as our responsibility to support local direction, we also have a responsibility to spend our money well. In the simulation, the Minister of Justice for the host country was pushing for assistance to build more courthouses. I am not convinced that, as a starting point, that is the best way to improve access to justice. But I was supposed to be supporting local ownership. It was hard not to feel like an imperial baddie when I was saying that perhaps our resources would go farther doing something less focused on physical plant, and more on human capacity.

We didn’t come out of the workshop with answers to any of these questions, but we at least came out being aware that they have to be asked. Development is hard, and there is never going to be a one-size fits all solution. We need to be smart about what kind of help we offer (I recently heard about an initiative to send wheelchairs to Afghanistan – very thoughtful, but not particularly practical in a country with a serious shortage of pavement ….), but we can’t give up either.