international development

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Recently, the new post-2015 agenda has been determined — and it’s called The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  After advocacy by civil society organizations, the new 2030 agenda includes — for the first time — targets on justice and governance, recognizing the importance of fundamental rights, transparency, accountability, and access to justice to sustainable and stable societies.

Goal 16 is “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”  This goal, impressively, includes reducing all forms of violence; ending abuse, exploitation, trafficking, and violence against children; promoting the rule of law; ensuring equal access to justice for all; reducing corruption; developing effective, accountable, and transparent institutions; providing legal identity for all; strengthening national institutions; and promoting non-discriminatory laws and policies.

This is fantastic news and provides ample space to further develop metrics and more quantitative, detailed indicators for measuring progress.  There are, however, concerns — that the scope of the new targets in the 2030 agenda are too broad, and that it may be difficult to once again communicate the importance of these new goals to the world. Indeed, measurement might be particularly tricky: when it comes to justice and governance, there is often little consensus on even basic definitions.  What does it mean to promote the rule of law, to ensure ‘access to justice’ and to develop an accountable institution? A lot of aspects of justice systems can be complex, and there is not always a clear definition or indicator of these terms. But this is now an opportunity to discuss and develop some sort of consensus on these issues — and actually make concrete progress and put real international commitments towards making access to justice and governance a reality.



In the worldwide movement to end domestic and gender-based violence, most efforts to combat violence against women and girls fall into two spheres: so-called prevention and response — similar to interventions in other realms, such as the healthcare field.

‘Prevention’ efforts approach gender violence with the idea that breaking down systems of patriarchy and oppression is the ultimate goal, and the root cause of gender violence. If we can disrupt the patriarchal order, we can begin to more effectively reduce and end gender violence. Many prevention efforts seek to change social and cultural norms as an attempt to reduce gender inequity. By changing patriarchal mindsets and attitudes – by shifting culture, which is never static – it may be possible to actually shift society in a more equitable direction. Many campaigns in the prevention realm thus focus on efforts such as: educating communities about domestic and gender-based violence; educating children on sexuality and healthy relationships; empowering women to be stakeholders and political leaders with power; changing unjust laws and policies and implementing better ones; and changing the portrayal of women in ads, mass media, music, and entertainment. Movement building and coalition building can also aid in challenging and changing unjust laws and structures that allow violence to perpetuate.

On the other hand, response is the area I have been largely focused on. As a (hopefully!) soon-to-be attorney, my mind is automatically drawn to solutions targeting the treatment of survivors after they have been abused. After being subject to abuse, are survivors they receiving the legal and social support and services they need? The response considers a holistic response to gender violence: legal aid and access to justice, safe housing, economic support and employment opportunity, childcare, protection by the police and an order of protection, social support and networks, and land/property rights. And on the criminal side, is the perpetrator apprehended, and ideally – rehabilitated?

In many ways, the ‘response’ is a limited solution, though. Response means the system has already failed the survivor at some level — she has been subject to abuse already. It also does not necessarily prevent the violence from being perpetrated again by the same abuser on the same victim/survivor, or a different one. However, research does indicate that access to a lawyer can increase the likelihood of obtaining an order of protection – and that about 86% of women who received a protection order or restraining order state that the abuse greatly reduced or stopped. At the least, then, the ‘response’ has a positive impact by reducing violence for the survivors who receive help; and at the most, taking action may have a deterrence effect on abusers who are prosecuted, experience the consequences of their actions, or obtain therapy/counseling to understand their behavior. In this way, ‘response’ can also be prevention in itself if it is implemented effectively.

The Response: Accessing Justice

Within the spectrum of responsive service delivery for survivors, access to justice is just one of the prongs. But interestingly, in one study comparing numerous social and legal service programs, only legal services was found to significantly reduce a woman’s likelihood of abuse – as noted above, in large part by facilitating the receipt of orders of protection – but also by providing the survivor with assistance on economic matters, thus increasing her financial stability and independence. Access to justice, then, has a measurable impact. It may not end domestic violence, but plays a vital role in ending domestic violence for survivors and may pay dividends to the extent that it can also increase defendant accountability.

The “justice” component really has two prongs:  civil and criminal.  Access to civil legal services can aid the survivor in moving forward and healing, and prevent further violence against her.  The criminal justice response, however, focuses largely on preventing the perpetrator from committing abuse again — and may have a broader deterrent effect, at the optimistic end.

Will access to justice end domestic violence in the world? Probably not; these efforts will need to be supplemented by the prevention components detailed above. But, can we end domestic violence without access to justice? It seems less likely.

Zooming out to the situation worldwide, there seem to be a few key barriers to effective access to justice, both civil and criminal.

1.  Lack of access to lawyers for the poor:

First, the poor – and survivors of gender-based violence – all too often lack access to a lawyer in civil cases. In the U.S., there is no ‘civil Gideon’ — no right for the poor to access a lawyer in civil cases.    This is the case in much of the world.  This makes access to a lawyer incredibly difficult for the poor, who face numerous — countless — barriers. These include the cost of hiring a lawyer, physical distance to a lawyer’s office or a court, the language barrier – particularly for those who are illiterate, as well as a ‘cultural barrier.’  I have seen firsthand how a survivor of domestic abuse in rural Bangladesh, for example, cannot easily go to an attorney. She faces numerous cultural barriers in that going to court may be seen as inappropriate and as taking a private, family matter ‘outside’ the allowed zone. This, then, becomes insolent behavior to be further punished. There is an informal, mandated culture of silent suffering for survivors of gender violence. In addition to this, lawyers are often seen as highly educated and in a different social class, and thus less relatable for low-income individuals. And finally, many communities utilize customary justice or alternative forms of dispute resolution, and may be unfamiliar with the formal legal institutions in place.

Solutions need to tackle increasing the number of trained lawyers and lawyers providing free services to the poor, and must make it more desirable for lawyers to provide justice for the poor. Currently, this is not a prestigious option in many countries. Incentives must be provided to attract more lawyers to this space – and salaries and job opportunities are key!   The most sustainable solution might be government-funded or subsidized legal aid. Other options are promoting paralegal corps to provide justice services at a lower cost, and in a form far more accessible to communities.

2.  Lack of appropriate laws in place:

But even where the poor have access to a lawyer, the right laws may simply not be in place. In the U.S. it is possible to generally obtain an order of protection, or to obtain sole custody of the children as a woman, or to obtain a divorce and equitable distribution of marital property including title to the marital home. Survivors of sexual assault can, generally, benefit from rape shield laws preventing prosecutors from inquiring into the survivor’s past sexual behavior. And those in a same-sex relationship can generally avail themselves of laws relating to GBV.  There are sexual harassment laws in place protecting one in the workplace.  In certain countries and regions, these laws may not exist. It is not always possible to obtain title to the marital home and avoid homelessness, or to shield inquiry into past sexual history. Marital rape remains legal in much of the world.  In such a situation, the just laws must be in place for access to justice to become a reality for survivors.  Without the laws, ‘justice’ is meaningless and in fact, impossible.

3. Systemic barriers in the justice system:

Formal justice systems are often not accessible for the poor due to systemic barriers — even if a survivor obtains a lawyer.  A single case can take years, even decades in an inefficient justice system with backlogs of thousands of cases.   Case backlogs may sound innocuous and technical, but they can be incredibly dangerous in allowing injustice to perpetuate.   Reports have documented that individuals are kept in pretrial detention for 10 or 15+ years, often because of inefficiencies and backlogs in the justice sector.  In addition, judges may not be well trained on the law, or may harbor patriarchal biases themselves. Finally, corruption in the system often prevents the poor from moving forward with their case, and contributes to backlogs.

4. Systemic barriers in police accountability:

Finally, prosecution or enforcing a restraining order can be effective only with the assistance of the police. In many places, police accountability and effectiveness is limited. The reasons are numerous: the police as an institution are often underfunded and lack the resources to track down offenders and implement the law, particularly in poor countries; the police may have poor training on dealing with gender violence cases; the police themselves may harbor patriarchal biases against intervening in gender violence cases; and the police may also be corrupt – sometimes a consequence of poor salary and support from the institution.  Without the help of the police, it can be near impossible to enforce the law and keep survivors safe. What is the solution? This one is a bit harder; it might require a combination of funding and training — and governments simply need to make it a priority to well-equip police to fight crime. More female police officers may also be a small part of the solution.

Ultimately, if these 4 barriers are addressed, access to justice can become much more a reality, even for poor survivors of gender-based violence.  While improving access to justice will not end violence, if it is implemented effectively, it can reduce it for survivors and may have a deterrence effect that is felt throughout society.


Namati has just released an excellent and comprehensive review of 199 studies documenting the evidence related to legal empowerment. Does legal aid and awareness ‘work’? If so, how can we measure and conceive of its impact? As Namati writes:

Our main finding is that legal empowerment, in all its myriad forms and wide range of contexts, works. In total, 97 per cent of the studies reported at least one positive change. Even programs that failed to make the changes they were designed for had other, unexpected positive effects on communities, individuals and the law.

Some of the positive changes Namati noted were: increases in personal agency of participants, improvement in health and education outcomes, increases in income, changes in the way government institutions operate, and improvement in functioning of traditional authorities (such as the shalish in Bangladesh).

Definitely worth a read!


I am truly excited to announce my very first published paper! I’ve been working on this paper since 2012, when I spent two months in Bangladesh researching BRAC’s expansive and community-based legal aid and legal empowerment program, and particularly its impact on women’s rights.

I’m very happy to say that my piece has been published by the World Bank Justice and Development Working Paper Series. I could not be more thankful to BRAC for allowing me to conduct this research and to study their access to justice and dispute resolution model, and also to the World Bank for choosing to focus on important issues of legal empowerment of the poor — an issue all too often neglected among other development and human rights priorities. Here’s the abstract:

This piece examines the current status of justice and dispute-resolution mechanisms in Bangladesh, ranging from the formal justice system to the traditional shalish (a form of dispute resolution), and focuses on the costs and benefits of utilizing nongovernmental organization (NGO)-led legal services programs as an alternative form of justice delivery and dispute resolution for the poor, with a focus on women and girls. In particular, this paper takes a closer look at the Human Rights and Legal Aid Services (HRLS) program of BRAC, a leading NGO that works to empower the poorest and most vulnerable in Bangladesh and eleven other countries across the world. HRLS provides a combination of BRAC-led shalish, human rights community based education, community mobilization through a corps of community-based outreach workers (known as shebikas), and recourse to the courts via a network of panel lawyers if needed. This paper will examine the successes of this model in rural Bangladesh as well as the challenges it faces in making an impact on solving the justice problems of the poor and contributing to gender equity. Ultimately, it aims to present a case study that illustrates the strengths and challenges of a legal empowerment model that is quickly gaining traction around the world.

 You can read the complete piece here.

Also, please take a look at some of the other working papers in this series – they are all truly incredible and shed light on a range of fascinating and important issues within access to justice, rule of law, and legal empowerment.


This past January, I had the fortune of researching Muslim women’s legal rights under family law and inheritance law, as well as civil laws relating to domestic violence, child marriage, and dowry in India.

It was a fantastic learning experience, and what I learned about India truly impressed me. India has some incredible laws on paper to protect women’s rights, including strong rights and entitlements relating to domestic violence and dowry. Yet, the challenge that I always observe comes down, once again, to the implementation gap.

When it comes to implementation, I often turn to legal aid — can people access the courts? If not, implementation of many laws, but particularly those relating to family law, domestic violence, and inheritance rights, is moot. Without going to court, one cannot easily and enforceably avail oneself of the right to inherit a certain share of property, or to obtain maintenance payments, or child support, or a divorce. Key barriers to accessing justice include: cost of filing fees, distance to a courthouse, corruption and slow nature of the courts, social stigma of filing such a case over a ‘family matter,’ and costs of obtaining a lawyer.

One way that some of these barriers can be reduced is through provision of lawyers, legal aid, and paralegals. And here is where India’s laws truly excel.

Under Section 12 of the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987, a number of individuals have access to free legal services, including:

  • Members of scheduled castes or tribes
  • Women and children
  • Certain persons with disabilities
  • Victims of human trafficking, mass disasters, ethnic or caste violence,  and natural and industrial disasters
  • Individuals in custody at a protective home, juvenile home, or psychiatric hospital
  • Individuals with an annual income of under 50,000 rupees

Even more impressive, the state of Haryana actually has a scheme for Paralegal volunteers. Under the National Legal Services Authority (Legal Aid Clinic) Regulations, 2011, Legal Aid Clinics are required to be set up in all villages or clusters of villages, with at least two paralegal volunteers in each office. The paralegals are tasked with providing initial advice to legal aid seekers, helping people in drafting petitions and forms for government benefits, contacting lawyers, accompanying people seeking legal aid to government offices, and providing legal awareness. 

India’s legal aid laws are certainly impressive – I have come across few other countries which actually make civil legal services a right for such large segments of the population, including women, girls, low income individuals and those with disabilities. Further, few countries seem to officially recognize and give power to paralegals, who I believe can strengthen legal awareness in communities and expand communities understanding of their rights and access to legal aid as needed. Paralegals can be much more accessible within a rural community and can be equipped to use more flexible strategies than lawyers, including awareness raising, education, and community organizing – among other tools.

Still, there are questions with these regulations. Paralegals are still volunteer with a minimal stipend — it’s worth questioning why these aren’t salaried posts. Although there’s a certain fear that comes with providing a government job, it also seems that people placed in a community for a longer time can make a broader impact. Overall, though, this legislation and regulations seem to be a truly positive step for India, though there is — once again — much more to do on the implementation front, as many of these offices seem to be non-operational at the moment.

Regardless, I’m excited to hear more about 1) how other countries can adopt similar models and legislation, and 2) how India can better implement these legal aid and paralegal provisions to strengthen access to justice.


I’ve just started a brief project in India, but I’ve immediately noticed the use of the word “field” here; it’s pervasive, and refers to going to the more rural Indian villages that projects are based in and where ‘beneficiaries’ (another jargony word I don’t love) are located. However, the word “field” is just as much used in the U.S. to describe going to India – or Kenya – or Afghanistan – or any country, even if you’re just going to the country headquarters in a major city.

I do think that living and working abroad, and meeting, listening to, and understanding people benefiting from your organization’s projects is crucial for those who want to critically and keenly engage in international development or human rights work. But I’m not sure that the word “field” captures this correctly, as it can refer to so many different things. Further, I’m not sure the focus should be solely or even necessarily on sending foreigners into “the field” – but on ensuring that aid/development is ultimately actually led by communities themselves, and that communities and affected people have their voice heard at national and international levels and forums.

To that end, I agree to an extent with the reality of what J. writes in WhyDev, in “The Myth of the Field”:

Speaking to the empowered, globally-minded Westerners now, we might say that we want Ugandans or Indonesians or Bolivians or whomever else to be empowered owners of their own development, but every time we refer to where they are as “the field”, we underscore our perhaps unconscious views that they are undeveloped, while we are, well, developed. By continually invoking this notion of the field we reinforce the very divides we say we want to bridge; we further solidify the very inequities we insist we want to eradicate. Inevitably “the field” becomes an even more deeply entrenched separation between “us” and “them”…

Certainly, this is true. However, I have heard the word “field” used even in India and Bangladesh by local organizations, not necessarily by Westerners, but by locals; even there, this general idea is relevant. Further, there are other aspects of J.’s description that are undoubtedly true, but nonetheless disturbing.

But in the everywhere else, you decide or participate in decisions about where the funding goes. This region gets 2/3, that region gets 1/3. You decide which countries get funding. You decide what sectors get prioritized. These places, more than those. These people, not those. Maternal Child Health, but not harm reduction. At the project site, you basically implement the decisions made by those who are elsewhere. When I was a country director (during my own years in this alleged place called the field), I tried repeatedly to articulate and implement a strategy which focused on particular sectors in particular parts of the country where I worked (Vietnam). But at the end of the day, aid industry Darwinism took over and I implemented the grants I could win—which were not necessarily in my sectors or geographic areas of preference. I might have been on the so-called front lines, but the real decisions about where and who and what had been made elsewhere.

In the current aid or ‘development’ framework, certainly it is true that those decisions are made at the ‘headquarters’ and mostly by people from the global North. But let’s question: should this be the way things are done? When will development actually be led and when will these decisions be made by the people who are affected by aid and who are set to benefit from it, by the poor, minorities, and marginalized themselves? Does it matter what the ‘field’ is and whether aid workers are going there when part of the issue is who most aid workers are in the first place? Should we accept this status quo, or question it to some degree?


Anyone who visits Salone in the rainy season will inevitably remember the country’s color as green – a vivid, lush, and verdant landscape broken up by the contrasting deep reddish copper color of the dirt roads that wind through the most isolated villages, and by the dry yellow of huts built from sticks and thatch. My memories of the summer months will forever be imbued with the sound of rain pounding heavily on the zinc roof of my room, the taste of roasted corn and coconut water sold by roadside vendors, and the thrilling but absolutely terrifying okada [motorcycle] rides whizzing through the countryside. The way the weather cools off in the rain, leaving me almost chilly during my morning bucket baths of cold water. The beautiful ride over the breathtaking Sewa river that borders my village.

 I don’t intend to romanticize rural poverty. Certainly, those moments of beauty I observe and appreciate also inevitably contain moments of heartbreak and devastation for Sierra Leoneans. While rural poverty may not appear, on its face, as harsh as life in the urban slums – surrounded as the villagers are by greenery, light, and open spaces devoid of congestion, refuse, and pollution – life remains painful underneath. Life expectancy is only 47 years, under-5 mortality is one of the highest in the world, and 53% of the population lives below $1.25 a day. There is nothing remotely romantic about the hard statistics, which only underscore the reality: life is tough, incredibly tough, for the rural poor in Sierra Leone.

Yet, for a stranger like me, passing through Salone for a brief two months, its hard to ignore the beauty of life here – from the breathtaking natural endowments of the country to the way each individual feels supported, and never truly alone or abandoned, by virtue of the survival of the village community.

And yet, the natural beauty leads to abuses – Sierra Leone, rich in natural resources, perpetually has been exploited by foreign investors and speculators willing to use locals as a means to an end. The civil war, between 1996 and 2001, was fueled in part by warlords financed by diamonds mined in Sierra Leone. Today, mining companies coming into rural communities to access diamonds or iron pay men extremely minimal wages to do backbreaking and often highly dangerous work. How much of the profits from mining go to improve Sierra Leone — and how much instead goes into the coffers of corporations and complicit government officials?

Exploitation of labor, amidst the backdrop of a breathtaking landscape. Singing, dancing, laughing, smiling – joy, in a place of poverty and lack of healthcare. The strong ties of community that leaves none behind – and yet, pervasive customs that impede women’s rights, abuses by traditional authorities, and interpersonal conflict exacerbated by these very community bonds. These are some of the contradictions of Sierra Leone.

How does one resolve these seemingly irresolvable incongruities?

Perhaps we cannot – but simply recognize that there are contradictions in our own lives, as well. In America, perhaps the wealthiest nation in the world, we die (less so now, thankfully!) – for lack of healthcare. In America, where women are CEOs and politicians, one in three women experience gender-based violence. In America, we have every modern convenience – but we still have people homeless on our streets. In America, we have Facebook, Twitter, and super-speed internet, but high rates of depression because perhaps, we have never been so alone.

There are contradictions everywhere, you see. So perhaps we are all not as different as appears on first glance. And as does not need to be said, even in places where exists poverty and violence, one can find incredible joy in connection, in dancing, singing and wholeheartedly embracing life. And yet – in a big city like New York – one can have every facet of modernity at his disposal, and still find himself profoundly and resoundingly – alone.

IMG_8536_2Boys playing (rather, posing) in Gondama, Sierra Leone

IMG_8579_2Women welcoming us to their community for a community meeting and legal awareness session

IMG_8279_2Boats used for sand mining along the Sewa River

IMG_8031_2View from the ferry between Lungi international airport and downtown Freetown

IMG_8042_2View from a house in Murray Town, Freetown


Sierra Leone is quite firmly post-conflict, with the war soon receding into the space of distant memory. And yet, the wounds of the war still appear raw at times, at least directly beneath the surface, where anger and frustration seem simmering in a pot threatening to boil over once again.

The ghosts of wartime past still linger in conversations. One man tells me about fleeing the war and being forced to be a refugee in neighboring Guinea, Ivory Coast, and Liberia. Another young woman tells me that her father was killed in the war, leaving her family – a mother and nine children – even poorer and more alone. You can see the shadow of the war when passing bombed out buildings– relics of the past, slowly becoming overgrown with nature once again, and yet left to stand.

But perhaps more subtly, the specter of the war remains in daily human interactions. Working for a conflict resolution office, I spend the day resolving disputes. Perhaps most clearly, Sierra Leoneans are anything but passive. They are angry, argumentative, easily prone to shouting and bursts of indignation. They have quick tempers that flare up at the slightest touch.

Sierra Leoneans do not speak quietly. They project loudly, speaking with their hands, which move and gesticulate animatedly with every sentence. They yell, point, and pace, and even a trivial argument can sound deathly serious. Two women argue about which one of their children is taller – but you would think, from their tone of voice – that it is a life-and-death matter.

In our office all day, arguments erupt between husbands and wives, family members, and friends. Outside of work, children are ‘flogged’ violently for the smallest transgression, and upon my attempt to intervene, I am told it is for their own good – and that “These are African children, not American ones; they don’t listen! Besides, in school, they are flogged five times. I only flogged this one four times!” Often, I see husbands and wives hitting each other outside (in full view of the police station, of course – no action is likely to be taken by the officers, who continue to lounge on their front porch, eating boiled peanuts to their hearts’ content).

In America, our violence might be sinister – hidden behind closed doors, with only neighbors hearing shouts and shattered glass through thin walls. In Sierra Leone, the violence is often public, and unabashedly so. There is no shame in hitting your children – it’s ‘normal.’ A crowd of neighbors and interested parties gathers when spouses/partners have an argument, physical or verbal, and word spreads; soon the entire village is privy to differing versions of their fight, and blow-by-blow re-enactments. Gossip is rife; nothing is truly private or safe from prying eyes.

While domestic violence is prevalent, and women bear the brunt of the beatings, living in Sierra Leone has further shattered any lingering preconceptions I might have of women as passive victims, silently and tearfully bearing weighty burdens. Instead, they are just as loud as their husbands and brothers (sometimes more so). Fiercely spirited, women and girls are not afraid to march into our office and complain about domestic violence, spousal neglect, or debts they are owed. They assert their opinions and anger with utter confidence – with far more self-assurance than I personally have. While their husbands might have multiple wives and girlfriends – they too, often have affairs and extramarital relationships (often those too, however, are tainted by abuse, inequality, and lack of true choice). And when I witness their husbands hitting them in public, women just as often strike back, risking further abuse. This is not to say that gender inequity doesn’t exist; it is frighteningly pervasive, even enshrined in the legal right of men to have multiple and even unlimited wives under customary law and the right of men to divorce when their wives do not provide them with sexual pleasure. But it is only to further negate stereotypical portrayals of women, particularly those subject to sexual and domestic abuse.

And so, in Sierra Leone, my life seems to be shrouded by conflict, and by the end of the day I find myself exhausted and often overwhelmed by the tasks of resolving one dispute after the other. Work and ‘play’ seems to blur together. Living in the community, any conflict I witness merges into my ‘work,’ – a potential space for peaceful mediation and the intervention of the law.

And so it is that years after the end of the war, this work – of conflict resolution and access to justice – has never been more vital to the lives of the poor.