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Returning Justice to the Fight Against Poverty

George Soros

Fifteen years ago, the United Nations Millennium Development Goals were set out to help stimulate and coordinate international efforts to eliminate extreme poverty. The Millennium Development Goals have helped foster enormous progress in some areas. But much remains to be done. With the goals set to expire in 2015, the world is again debating its development agenda and how to do things better. One way is to return justice as a key component of development.

Justice is a sine qua non for development. And while this was recognized in the Millennium Declaration it was left out of the Millennium goals. About four billion people live without rights and without access to the protections of the law, vulnerable to exploitation and violence, at risk of losing their homes or their land, and at a disadvantage in dealing with the criminal and civil justice systems that should be there to protect them.

In order to overcome poverty, people need voice and their voices need to reach people in power; people in positions to do justice. Access to justice must be returned to the global development agenda.  

Beginning this weekend in Bali, Indonesia, there will be a meeting of the high level panel set up by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon to draw up proposals for the post-2015 development framework to replace the Millennium Development Goals. George Soros, founder and chair of the Open Society Foundations, will attend to help make the case for including justice as one of the components.

Ban Ki Moon’s panel members have recognized the vital role rule of law plays in supporting “sustainable growth with equity.” But this equity does not speak for itself. The rights to equity embedded in law need to be claimed, including by the very poorest and most vulnerable. This is easily affordable if we make full use of paralegals and other tools. This is not about more work for lawyers, but about the full spectrum of legal empowerment.

Indonesia is an appropriate setting for this meeting. It's a country that knows plenty about global development agendas—both the good and the bad. From 1965 to the mid-1990s, under the military backed government of former President Suharto, Indonesia saw significant improvements in public health, education and women’s rights. But this was development delivered by the institutions of a centralized, repressive one­-party state, which would brook no dissent. That regime ultimately collapsed, many of its leaders mired in corruption.

Successive democratic governments in Jakarta have rejected that top-down, dictatorial approach, which focused on development delivered by institutions, largely indifferent to voices from the ground. They have recognized that truly sustainable development needs the ability of ordinary citizens to claim their rights and resources peacefully, using the law, and to demand accountability from those who represent them in power.  

The government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono launched a comprehensive national strategy on access to justice in 2009, which now shapes policy across all aspects of government. It has reviewed local regulations to remove any bias against women and improved the process for obtaining compensation by victims of labor abuse and violence. The new national legal aid law that took effect in 2011 endorsed state support for community paralegals, who provide legal support to the poorest members of society.

These are the building blocks of equitable development. Poor farmers must be able to turn to the law to resist attempted illegal land grabs. Market traders must be able to turn to the law to fend off demands for bribes from the local police. Slum dwellers must be able to turn to the justice system to hold to account companies that pollute their water supply.

The work of the Open Society Foundations is rooted in the principles of human rights. But over the past two decades, more and more of our work has involved trying to make those rights real for ordinary people. We, and the groups that we work with all around the world, have increasingly found that realizing rights requires strengthening the ability of people to use the law to gain access to fundamental necessities of life, including education, healthcare, food and fresh water, and housing.

Some governments, usually the less democratic ones, are cautious about this notion. They fear that aid money will be directed toward small non-governmental groups and organizations and away from the state institutions. But this is a false dichotomy. Access to justice works best in partnership with government, if the government creates the space needed for local groups to voice their needs. Strengthening the rights of citizens makes funding coming from abroad more effective. It means that efforts to eliminate poverty will actually yield benefits for those people who need them most.  

Development and justice are bound together and their union must be continually reinforced.

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