The following post is the third installment of the 12-part blog series, “Resisting Injustice”. The project brings together a collection of voices, from civil servants to comedians, to discuss why now, more than ever, we need to prioritize access to justice and how we can best do this together. 

The Slow Burn of Justice,
the Power of Research

By Adrian Di Giovanni, Senior Program Specialist, Law & Development at International Development Research Centre

The slow burn of justice. In launching the “Resisting Injustice” blog series, Namati has evoked the powerful image of the arc of history bending towards justice and, in the process, a long history of calls to justice by such inspirational Americans as Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Parker. On questions of justice, I often turn to another well-worn image: the flame.

The flame of justice burns in all of us, across communities and generations. It is our shared dignity as well as our responsibility to nurture it so that it doesn’t go out or burn out of control – the proverbial forest fire – in such a way that one person’s or group’s pursuit of justice comes at the exclusion of others.

Across the world, the space for respectful debate and disagreement is rapidly shrinking. In some countries, populist movements have used a discourse of suspicion and intolerance to target disadvantaged groups, like refugees and migrants, while other countries have seen outright attacks on freedom of expression. Are the fires of justice growing too weak or raging out of control? It is not an easy question to answer in one go.

Like many, I was inspired and relieved a couple of months ago to see lawyers in major airports across the US come to the assistance of foreign nationals facing a government order that challenged many shared notions of justice. In that moment, we saw the power of the law to resist injustice in a moment of crisis (which also, as Irene Khan the Secretary-General of IDLO recently remarked, made lawyers “cool” again). It was a spark of justice that ignited the imagination of people across many boundaries. And we see those sparks in different legal empowerment efforts in countries around the world. This example of a community in Duah, Liberia confronting a village leader on a crony land deal is one of many that jump to mind.

Next to such moments, research or evidence-building – the main tools my colleagues at Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and I support in promoting justice globally – might appear somewhat unglamorous. Yet while the “sparks” are instrumental to lighting new flames, or reviving smothered ones, they are not enough to sustain the flame of justice. Ensuring respect for justice and the most basic of rights is a long-term and incremental struggle, requiring concerted efforts by many actors and, often, entailing big shifts in how groups, communities, and societies organize and see themselves. It is a slow burn. Here is where we see the power of research: building better knowledge on how people confront and can overcome justice challenges is a crucial element in sustaining that flame. Without it, we risk fumbling in the dark or trying to torch competing views through force of conviction alone.

A spark leads to a flame, many flames. The attack on critical thought and established truth, which has defined various populist movements, has challenged some of the work I support in a new, even existential, way. In the face of such threats, what role can research play in overcoming justice and larger social problems?

As a starting point, I would venture that current threats to evidence and ‘truth’ do not diminish but in fact reaffirm their importance. Research, when done well, reflects many of the basic notions of justice that we now see under threat. The search for greater knowledge conditions us not to take our own views and experiences as a given but to test our assumptions.

Much of the justice-oriented research my colleagues and I support aims to help populations gain a deeper understanding of their justice challenges (through various participatory and action-oriented processes) and, in turn, how they can be empowered to claim their rights and seek better opportunities. We believe that the actors living closest to a set of challenges are the one best placed to understand them and identify solutions that will bring about lasting change. When given a chance to weigh in on basic questions of justice, people become engaged. Often they express a desire for greater awareness: to understand better the various processes, policies or challenges affecting them. And with a deeper sense of the issues at stake generally comes a desire to know how to meaningfully come together so that their voices are heard. Justice, the flame, burns at a deeply personal level, across countries and socio-economic groups.

In successful, inspiring instances, research efforts can spark collective action, as people take steps together to assert their rights and light the path for large-scale change. In Nairobi, Kenya, IDRC research partners developed deeper evidence on life in Mukuru, an informal settlement of around 100,000 households. The research team, led by Akiba Mashinani Trust, then shared findings on sanitation conditions with participating women community leaders. At the same time, the team provided information about how those conditions did not meet with their constitutional rights.

With this new awareness, the women organized a petition, then took to the streets to claim their rights to sanitation. Those and other advocacy efforts caught the attention of public officials, which provided an opening for the partners to engage in a larger process of dialogue. The team’s deeper set of findings, along with a corresponding series of tailored solutions, convinced officials that change in an otherwise forgotten part of the city was not just urgent but possible. The team and city government are now working together, along with residents, to start redeveloping the settlement.

Populist forest fires? What has been most troubling about the populist waves in recent years is how they demonstrate the negative power of collective action. While it might be tempting to dismiss many of those movements as ill-informed or misguided, they have in many cases been framed using a language of injustice, such as a (perceived) lack of economic opportunity or a disconnect from political leaders and processes. In seeing injustice in their own struggles, however, these movements have failed to recognize the injustice they have inflicted on others in the process.

At IDRC, we see the power of building new evidence in helping to break down what are seen as insurmountable challenges or in injecting a common ground for dialogue on divisive or ‘no go’ issues. Now more than ever, we need to hold true to the important commitment of meeting people where they are, of humanizing issues and building mutual understanding by ‘talking with people in real life‘. That reflex to seek understanding is central to the critical engagement and curiosity that define research and justice. The challenges posed by recent populist waves help us to reframe basic long-standing research questions with a new urgency, such as:

  • How do we promote meaningful and mutually respectful engagement with and among citizens on important issues when suspicion, anger, and division between populations groups is on the rise?
  • How can we best ensure that populations, including the vulnerable or hardest to reach, have the knowledge and resources to access justice in an era of economic hardship and closing spaces for expression?
  • How can we best combine efforts to empower groups to claim their rights – through legal empowerment and collective action – with efforts to ensure public officials, laws, and institutions are responsive to those groups’ needs, desires, and basic rights?

These are core questions that, along with dedicated actors across the Global South, my colleagues and I will be addressing in IDRC’s Governance & Justice group in the coming years. We invite others to join us, in the shared commitment and resolve, to nurture this slow – yet urgent – burn.

To read other entries from the “Resisting Injustice” blog series, 
click here.

Notable Replies

  1. Thank you for this piece, @AdrianDiGiovanni !

    I found your allusion to the image of the flame to be a very powerful one. I also think the question you posed to be very pertinent: Are the fires of justice growing too weak or raging out of control?

    Since the recent US Presidential election, there has been an increase of political engagement and activism from seemingly all sides of the spectrum. In this society that is now so focused on and concerned with “fake news” and “alternative facts”, I agree that the role of research and knowledge is more significant than ever.

    I also agree wholeheartedly with you when you stated that “actors living closest to a set of challenges are best placed to understand them and identify solutions to bring about lasting change”. Often times I see organizations with great ideas, and good intentions, but that don’t incorporate those on the ground and therefore can’t offer sustainability.

    I know you touched on this, but I was hoping you could elaborate more (and anyone else is welcome to engage as well!) on how average people in society or those working on the ground can best combat the distrust in reporting, research, and science that has seemingly increased in recent times? Especially, as you mentioned, when there is such suspicion and anger growing.

  2. Hi Kaitlyn,

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful question! It really goes to the heart of the issue that many people are grappling with.

    I can’t pretend to have any one or magical answer, but here are three initial reactions, and hopefully others can jump in with their ideas: (1) there does appear to be evidence emerging that low tech solutions like a brief conversation can help to change people’s perspectives on contested issues and break down divisions. I’m no expert on this topic and recent research has been the subject of some controversy. This post explains recent developments and findings well.

    (2) on questions of justice and basic rights, I do think there is a role for ‘trusted intermediaries’ to help raise awareness, and facilitate those types of conversations. In addition, as I describe in the blog post, raising awareness in that way can be a first step in helping break down barriers and even empower people in society. Playing the role of ‘intermediary’ in a respectful manner, that gives expression to other people’s perspectives and desires, to be clear is easier said than done, and is a huge responsibility. How to play that role effectively in a climate of distrust in many ways restates your basic question.

    (3) in a climate of distrust, being clear and transparent about methodology takes on greater importance. Being able to explain clearly how various conclusions and findings were arrived at can, at a minimum, help to establish their validity – i.e. that they aren’t solely based on opinion, or ‘alternative facts’. Debates around climate change, and arguments by climate skeptics, show that appealing to the rigour of methodology is by no means a certain or guaranteed path.

    I hope these few initial thoughts help, though I realize I may raise more questions than I answer. Thanks again for your great question!

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