In a short, but great, article on Legal Aid in Bangladesh, Ian Morrison, Director of the Bangladesh Legal Aid Reform Project, has provided a useful macro-level criticism of the legal aid system as it stands. He writes,
It is far easier and more immediately rewarding to work with NGOs, who have mastered the discourse of access to justice that donors want to hear, who can produce results fairly quickly and who can provide a more holistic service approach than will ever be possible under government legal aid. Nevertheless, the value of this approach in the long term must be questioned. Despite huge budgets (relatively speaking), legal aid NGOs still do not provide coverage to more than about one third of the country, and not always then to the most needy.
Although NGOs are all about legal empowerment, rights-based approaches, and the other fashionable trends of modern access to justice, at the end of the day NGOs, no matter how good their work, are not politically accountable and are not inside the system. Legal aid from NGOs cannot be claimed as legal and constitutional right, and when and if donor attention is distracted (as it invariably is at some point), large service edifices will quickly crash. This has in fact happened more than once in Bangladesh. If the current struggle within Bangladesh to strengthen rule of law as a component of democratic practice is to succeed – and it is certainly not a sure thing – then access to justice must be pushed as a value of the legal system itself and government itself must accept its proper responsibility to ensure this.
What an excellent point, and one we must consider when thinking not just about legal aid – but access to essential services that should be a human right. In Bangladesh, BRAC is frequently decried as a ‘parallel government’ due to its expansive programs – especially in health and education. Many other NGOs, worldwide, too, have to be wary of the impact their programs are having on the state.
NGOs should question: to what extent are they replacing the state and forming a ‘shadow’ state? Are civil society groups weakening the state’s resolve to provide high-quality services? How can NGOs instead collaborate with the government in service delivery? How can NGOs work to create demand amongst communities for basic human rights and service delivery from the government?
I don’t have answers to these questions – but I do believe that the current system is not necessarily sustainable, financially or otherwise, for the long run. What happens if funding runs out and an NGO closes? What if NGOs simply decide to change their programs based on funding restrictions? Can communities really demand better services from NGOs? Thus, I believe that for basic services, including legal aid, to become a basic human right and accountable to the people, governments themselves must begin taking on the responsibility for service delivery. Only then can communities have some sense of stability, continuity and accountability when it comes to high-quality social, legal, and health services.