What Does Justice Have to Do with Overcoming Poverty?

In the year 2000, in an effort to eliminate extreme poverty around the world, the United Nations adopted the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of targets which included:

  • halving extreme poverty rates;
  • improving infant and childhood survival rates;
  • ensuring access to clean water;
  • combatting HIV and AIDS, TB, and malaria;
  • promoting primary education, proper health care, and gender equality.

Since 2000, the goals helped shape the development spending priorities of both donors and the governments who receive aid. Some of the targets have been reached: the goal of halving extreme poverty rates, for instance, was achieved in 2010. Others have recorded solid progress. But the improvements are spread unevenly. Vast numbers of people still suffer extreme poverty, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.

Why should we be concerned with the Millennium Development Goals today?

The initial Millennium Development Goals were focused on 2015. The UN General Assembly is preparing a new development agenda for the years 2015–2030. This is an opportunity for the United Nations to include targets for access to justice, an objective that was not included the first time around.

What does justice have to do with overcoming poverty?

Imagine a vibrant, modern economy sustaining itself where there is no respect for the sanctity of a contract, where a deed of ownership is not worth the paper it is written on, or where all disputes are resolved in a trial of strength, rather than by weighing the justice of competing claims. The rule of law is a basic precondition for sustainable economic development.

In societies with some legal protections, those who lack the resources for or access to the legal system are often denied these safeguards. It’s estimated that four billion people around the world do not enjoy the protections afforded by law.

The poorest and most vulnerable instead live at risk of losing their homes or the land upon which they depend for survival. They are exploited by corrupt government officials or local power-brokers, who use money or force to take what they want. When poor communities cannot seek justice for their grievances, the resulting anger can spill over into violence.  

If serious progress is ever going to be achieved in overcoming extreme poverty, the poor must enjoy the rule of law and functioning institutions of justice—otherwise money will continue to flow towards the powerful. 

Why do some governments oppose adding justice to the development goals?

Some governments, usually the less democratic ones, fear that aid money will be directed toward small nongovernmental organizations and away from state institutions, thus forcing the government to undertake changes to “business as usual.”

Access to justice, however, works best in partnership with government—if the government allows local groups to voice their concerns. Strengthening the rights of citizens ensures effective use of funding coming from abroad and ensures that efforts to eliminate poverty will actually yield benefits for those who need them most.

How are the Open Society Foundations promoting the role of justice in the post-2015 development framework?

We believe the value of a grassroots approach to justice needs to be fully recognized by the UN when it draws up its 2015–30 development agenda. Those decisions will ultimately be made by national governments. So we are working with our partners around the world—and with some governments who have already seen the benefits—to present clear, concrete examples of how grass-roots access to justice can support development.

Our partner Namati, which supports a global network of local legal empowerment groups, is also leading discussions on the kind of indicators that might be used, in effect, to “measure justice” and to establish the kind of comparable national targets used by the original MDGs. We could measure the number of people who have access to reliable, affordable legal information, should they need it. Or reduce to zero the number of individuals who lack a basic legal identity document which would give them access to government services.

In the meantime, we are continuing our work with partners on the ground. We are helping people use the law to gain access to education, health care, food and fresh water, housing, and other vital necessities. Some examples: