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In 2005, I had the privilege of joining an eminent group of scholars and policy leaders to reexamine the poverty challenge from the perspective of the four billion poor people who are excluded from the rule of law. That initiative is now a common name for all members of the legal development community: The Commission on the Legal Empowerment of the Poor. If the work of the Commission can be reduced to a single sound bite, it’s that there is an unmistakable link between poverty, injustice and legal exclusion.
While legal empowerment — as both a programmatic approach and a policy tool — has expanded in many countries and regions, in West Asia and North Africa, the debate has largely lost momentum. It may be that legal empowerment as a foundational element of development and poverty reduction was not convincing in the first place. Or it may have been overshadowed by more immediate problems, such as the Arab Spring, the conflict in Syria, or the impacts of environmental change and global economic recession. Legal empowerment was disregarded in lieu of more reactive politicking, containment strategies and stimulus interventions, rather than being seen as an innovative means of responding to new challenges.
Whatever the explanation, the region is facing acute and multifaceted development rifts, and I remain convinced that legal empowerment must form part of the response. The process of formulating the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has proven to be an opportunity in this regard, to mobilise attention, resources and momentum at an international level. The Zero Draft of the Outcome document for the Post 2015 agenda has ensured that justice is a central component in ensuring economic growth, environmental sustainability, peace and security and dignity for all people. We must mirror this success at a regional, national and local level. The Arab States cannot afford another missed opportunity.
West Asia-North Africa can easily be divided into the haves and have-nots: those with rich natural resource bases, and those without. Jordan, for example, has no extractable oil and is the third most water scarce country in the world. Water may be delivered once per week in larger cities such as Amman, but as infrequently as every 12 days in some rural areas. Up to 60% of piped water does not reach the end user, and we know that part of this problem is illegal syphoning.
The problems attendant on this situation breach the health, economic and livelihoods sectors. Poor access to water and sanitation have direct links to child mortality, malnutrition, low workforce and education participation rates, as well as protection problems such as threats of violence and sexual assault. High population growth coupled with the rapid depletion of groundwater reserves and the impact of climate change will only exacerbate these issues in years to come. As we work for new solutions, the challenge will be to ensure that resources are equitably shared.
The transition movements in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, and Libya, as well as the continuing instability in Syria and Iraq, and the unresolved conflict in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, impact the entire region. Countries involved have had to buffer civic violence, breakdowns in service provision, and the destruction of infrastructure. Those countries not directly affected must navigate the spillover effects of the conflicts around them. The crisis in Syria, for example, has led to refugee populations in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt of more than 2.5 million, in addition to the 21 million refugees and internally displaced persons from Pakistan to Morocco. Jordan alone is home to 63,000 Iraqi, 560,000 Syrian and almost 2 million Palestinian refugees. Overcrowding is now a serious problem in hospitals and schools, and the growing number of urban refugees is placing pressure on public resources such as water, electricity and waste management.
A final set of challenges relate to unemployment, entrepreneurial opportunity and growth. Despite high secondary and tertiary education rates in many Arab states, youth unemployment sits at 22% for men, and as high as 40% for women. Members of the informal economy, which make up 60% of the Arab workforce, are exposed to unsafe working conditions (especially in the garment-making and domestic labor fields), and enjoy poor access to entitlements such as minimum wages, social security and insurance.
A lynchpin in each of these woes is that access to justice is difficult, especially for the poor and marginalised, and in particular for women. These challenges – articulated by authentic regional voices – have been fed into and shaped the SDGs. There are less than 100 days left until the adoption of this agenda, in these final moments we will continue influence the post-2015 development goals, targets and indicators to ensure they reflect the Arab experience. Throughout this process I have been advocating for the inclusion of a goal on justice and legal empowerment in the post-2015 global development agenda.
The rationale is threefold:
1. Justice and the rule of law are now broadly recognised as cornerstones of effective and inclusive development. A review of the development progress over the past 14 years has shown that countries with legitimate laws and credible enforcement mechanisms made better progress in expanding opportunities for women and vulnerable groups to participate in economic and political life. Conversely, countries that lacked transparent and legitimate legal frameworks, had more difficulty meeting targets in health, education and other social services.
2. Let us consider the alternative. The consequences of weak legal empowerment are practical and debilitating. Without secure property and identity rights, progressive laws, and a reliable enforcement system, people cannot access essential services, conduct business, own property or protect their livelihoods. In the absence of opportunities to equitably resolve grievances and uphold rights, criminality and exploitation flourish.
3. Prioritising justice in the international agenda is a normative imperative. Development must be made more just and inclusive. What is the point of increased employment, access to health care or halving the number of people without sanitation, if such gains are not shared equally, or put further distance between the privileged and the marginalised?
As a result of sustained pressure, justice and the rule of law is now firmly included in the agenda. The adoption of these goals is a landmark step, but it is just the first of many that need to be taken to ensure that there is real change. The SDGs are guiding principles which must be implemented nationally and locally owned. To prepare for this, last month I called a meeting with representatives from government and civil society as well as regional friends to discuss how we can move forward justice to benefit Arab citizens and the region. This meeting began a dialogue which must continue as the SDGs move into national implementation. We must also put in place the necessary framework to track our progress as a nation and ensure that investments made to improve justice benefits all citizens, especially the poorest. We are influencing the global debate on setting global indicators for justice, but we must also ensure we create relevant national indicators which are unique to our own efforts.
In formulating the post-2015 SDGs, there are indeed many interdependent and compelling issues at hand. It is always difficult to prioritise among them. Yet this does not trivialise the evidence linking equitable legal development to poverty reduction. These links may not be as visible as those in health, foreign investment and job creation, but if this was easy and the links were clear, poverty would be a thing of the past.
Justice and empowerment need to be reflected adequately within the new international development architecture. Justice is an end in itself, a prerequisite to the fulfillment of other development goals, and it is the right thing to do. West Asia-North Africa cannot afford another 15 years without justice being at the fore of the international agenda. The costs to the people in terms of human dignity and human security are simply too high.
And let us not forget that this process does not end in September. Instead, this is when the work begins. The reason I continue to call for an authentic articulation of the Arab position is because we have a long way to go, and we need careful, home-grown analysis on how to get there. There is no Arab roadmap appended to the Millennium Development Goals, and there will likewise be no roadmap attached to the SDGs. The region needs to write this roadmap itself, and that requires a frank assessment of our region, the constraints and opportunities therein, and the messy interconnections between goals. Our justice challenges will not wait.
There are five key points necessary to lay a solid foundation for legal empowerment in the Arab region:
1. We need to look critically at why legal empowerment has not caught on here as it has done in many other parts of the world. My suspicion, to be blunt, is that we are still confronting the ‘why do we care’ question.
2. We have to find realistic strategies to move beyond the political economy that currently blights progress towards legal empowerment.
3. We need to carve out a wider and more liberal operating space for civil society. Legal empowerment is too large of a problem to be left to government alone. Civil society must be brought into development discussions as equal partners — their insights into the challenges faced by the marginalised are invaluable when crafting impactful strategies.
4. We need to prioritise the development of a regional knowledge base capable of supporting the level of innovation required to meet these challenges.
Legal empowerment represents a proactive, realistic and timely opportunity to confront many of the challenges facing the countries of West Asia and North Africa. It is not a silver bullet. But ordinary people must be able to hold rights-bearers accountable, they must be able to innovate and start business, and they must be able to protect themselves from exploitation and abuse: the law must make every day life easier, not be another challenge to overcome. Implementing the SDGs is one way to begin shifting our approach; we must ensure this is done in a way that reflects our national context and priorities.
The people of West Asia and North Africa are industrious and accustomed to weathering adversity. I am yet to meet a poor person who is only looking for a free ride. They are looking for opportunity – equal opportunity. Give them the tools and architecture to uphold their rights, and they will provide a lot of the answers to resource sustainability and protection, innovation, and the growth of new markets.
This OpEd originally appeared on the website of the West Asia – North Africa Institute. The WANA Institute partnered with Namati to host a regional justice meeting on the new SDGs in 2015.
HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan is Chairman of the WANA Institute and a signatory to the Open Letter on Justice in the SDGs.