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Think Locally, Act Globally

April 14, 2014
By building local capacity and utilizing existing resources, domestic and international legal reformers can implement more sustainable and effective rule of law improvements around the world.

By Anne Marie Bonner, MS’14

Scales of Justice and Judge`s gavel

The United Nations defines the rule of law as “a principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the State itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards” (UN Secretary General, 2004, p. 4).  Over the last three-quarters of a century, the rule of law sector has, at various points in history, represented a wide – and sometimes disparate – array of international development concerns.  Characterized by “a complicated web of relationships among sources of funding, intermediary organizations and end-point providers of advice,” the rule of law “sector” includes both foreign and domestic governmental and non-governmental agencies (deLisle, 1999, p. 194). Each of these actors has a different approach to its work: some focus on an arms-length grant-giving model, while others provide direct services; some embrace the role of traditional/tribal law, while others emphasize a “checklist of democracy-supporting […] institutional reform[s];” and some provide direct assistance in constitutional drafting, while others promote sub-constitutional efforts “to build legal and law-making institutions” (deLisle, 1999, pp. 213-17).

Rule of law reform also varies based on the historical, cultural, socio-political, and economic context within which it is implemented.  In China, for example, many legal reform efforts have been geared toward strengthening the country’s market-oriented economy (deLisle, 1999, pp. 220).  Legal reform in the former Soviet Bloc countries has been undergirded by the region’s socio-political history and its desire “to be part of the European community […] from which they’d been wrenched by WWII and the communist era” (Howard, 2013).

In the nearly seventy-years since the end of World War II, and the subsequent decolonization of developing countries around the world, the international community has engaged in several waves of “democratization,” during which developed countries have attempted to institute legal reforms in developing and emerging economies.  These reforms have been met with mixed results.

The first post-WWII wave of democratization came in the 1950s and 1960s, when developed countries attempted to modernize newly de-colonized nations through economic, political and legal reform.  The modernization formula adopted by law and development reformers focused on the establishment of (1) governmental apparatuses, (2) capitalist market systems, (3) universalistic legal systems, and (4) democratic political systems (Tamanaha, 2011, p. 209).  Perhaps unsurprisingly, these top-down, ethnocentric reforms – largely modeled on Western legal systems – did not take hold in most regions, leaving reformers divided and in disarray over the best way to move forward (Tamanaha, 2011, p. 210).

Subsequent waves of democratization followed in the mid-1970s and late 1980s, respectively.  These movements began to operate under a new assumption that the local civic and political culture of a country must be taken into account when implementing legal and economic development reforms.  And yet, even in light of this cultural relevance realization, much of the rule of law reform that took place after the second and third waves continued to focus on the allegedly “big issues”– the drafting of a constitution, the movement toward a free market economy, and the holding of national elections (Tucker, 2011, p. 431).  Meanwhile, what largely went unheralded and under-resourced was the other side, “[…] the systematic, ‘day-to-day,’ capacity-building approach to effectuating effective civil societies, establishing local governance and achieving rule of law” (Tucker, 2011, p. 431).  Indeed, although the number of nation-states considered “democratic” more than doubled between 1974 and 2011, many of these states still suffer from what journalist Fareed Zakaria calls illiberal democracy – a political system that supports free elections but does not safeguard a separation of powers, a protection of individual rights and liberties, government checks and balances, or other key vestiges of the rule of law (Zakaria, 1997, para. 2).

Today, many legal development reformers are advocating for local community buy-in and collaboration when conducting rule of law reform in post-conflict zones, developing countries, and emerging economies.  Legal reform efforts are traditionally more effective when practitioners are addressing the real andpertinent needs of the local community, and when they have buy-in from the country’s leaders and power-holders (Kleinfeld, 2012, p. 186).  Legal assistance programs are most impactful when practitioners understand the language, the culture, and the religious and legal traditions of a local community.  This approach to rule of law reform has become particularly relevant in the wake of reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.  The “hybrid model for Afghan justice,” proposed by the Center for Policy and Human Development at Kabul University, combines Alternative Dispute Resolution systems (largely comprised of local jirgas/shuras and Community Development Councils) with formal state legal systems to ensure fair and equitable delivery of justice in Afghanistan (Wardak et al., 2007, pp. 4,12).  While this approach has the advantage of building capacity at the local level, the balance between formal law and customary law can be a difficult one to negotiate, especially when traditional legal systems seem to conflict with international norms and standards.

An assessment of the current rule of law landscape reveals several key areas of growing consensus: effective legal reform requires partnership with the local community and the country’s power-holders; the “nuts and bolts” of strengthening local legal structures is as important as the sweeping constitutional reforms; rule of law reform is a long-term process, characterized by years of gradual, incremental change; and economic and legal reform are often concurrently evolving processes, with economic improvement facilitating institutional legal reform and improved legal structures attracting greater economic investment and entrepreneurship.  In the final analysis, by building local capacity and utilizing existing resources, domestic and international legal reformers can implement more sustainable and effective rule of law improvements around the world.


deLisle, J. (1999). Lex Americana: United States Legal Assistance, American Legal Models,

and Legal Change in the Post-Communist World and Beyond. University of Pennsylvania

Journal of International Economic Law, Vol. 20.2.


Howard, A.E.D. (2013). How Constitutional Ideas Travel: the Influence of the American

Constitutional Experience on Other Countries and Cultures. University of Virginia School

of Law. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y2k9x4EA1_g.


Kleinfeld, R. (2012). Crafting a Second Generation Reform Strategy. Advancing the Rule of Law

Abroad. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Washington, D.C.


Tamanaha, B.Z. (2011). The Primacy of Society and the Failures of Law and Development.

Cornell International Law Journal, Vol. 44.


Tucker, C.E. (2011). Cabbages and Kings: Bridging the Gap for More Effective Capacity-

Building. University of Pennsylvania Journal of Law and Social Change, Vol. 14.4.


UN Secretary General (2004). The rule of law and transitional justice in conflict and post-

conflict societies. United Nations Security Council. Retrieved from

http://www.unrol.org/files/2004 report.pdf.


Wardak, A., Saba, D., and Kazem, H. (2007). Afghanistan Human Development Report.

Center for Policy and Human Development. Retrieved from



Zakaria, F. (1997). The Rise of Illiberal Democracy. Foreign Affairs. Retrieved from





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