SUMMARY: Legal Empowerment, Civil Society and Corruption: Rethinking Governance-Oriented Aid in Today’s Challenging International Contexts

In “Legal Empowerment, Civil Society and Corruption: Rethinking Governance-Oriented Aid in Today’s Challenging International Contexts,” Stephen Golub makes recommendations for development organizations to increase financial support for civil society organizations, emphasizing the importance of legal empowerment. Legal empowerment departs from traditional, top-down approaches to development and gives agency back to the community to shape the law. As Golub explains, legal empowerment helps society develop a better understanding of the law and the power to change it, giving people the power to improve their quality of life and protect the rights of vulnerable populations. He also notes that civil society organizations play the most significant role in promoting legal empowerment activities. Golub acknowledges that civil society organizations can be corrupt, but he recommends that development organizations consider using civil society as a medium for legal empowerment.

Golub draws on his significant experience in international development to offer a critique of top-down approaches that prioritize government over civil society. He argues that, often, development organizations overestimate their influence, and they prioritize working with governments so as to maximize impact. He also argues that a reliance on frameworks and indicators leads to new trends in practice that rarely consult people in the communities. In the past decade, development organizations have become more focused on “thinking politically” and “problem-driven iterative adaptation,” which Golub argues often do not translate from discourse into practice. Additionally, these trends make it harder for locals and community members to take the lead in development projects. Golub argues that development consulting firms play a negative role, as well, because they are frequently profit-driven and drawn to programs that need more substantial amounts of consulting services, as opposed to civil society groups, which look for more flexible support, mainly needing assistance for their core operations.

Golub draws on relevant literature to explain the advantages of legal empowerment over top-down approaches to development. For example, the World Justice Project, Freedom House, Koechlin et al., and Mungiu-Pippidi illustrate that a reliance on governmental institutions and current anti-corruption strategies has actually led to an increase in corruption globally, rather than a reduction. In contrast, Goodwin and Maru illustrate several examples of legal empowerment decreasing corruption and increasing accountability. Domingo and O’Neil examine how corruption obstructs rule of law, particularly in regard to women’s rights. In their example, community-level paralegals and grassroots NGOS stepped in to help combat corruption in the health care sector in Colombia. Golub then outlines the impact legal empowerment has had around the globe in a variety of fields like health care, prisoner rights, and government accountability. Legal empowerment significantly contributed to positive change in all areas. For example, Golub gives an example from Liberia in which community members fought for more decision-making power and transparency in the land documentation process. Legal empowerment allowed them to secure community land rights and benefitted vulnerable populations (orphans and women) from being exploited.

Additionally, Golub outlines the advantages and opportunities for civil society organizations to become important actors in the response to the COVID-19 crisis. For example, some civil society groups that generally focus on long-term goals are shifting to address short-term needs. The crisis presents an opportunity to further support civil society and advocate for legal empowerment. Golub links these points with how legal empowerment NGOs and civil society groups can have an impact more generally: depending on the gravity of the situation, donors and other international actors may be able to better persuade governments to consider civil society programming to aid in both disaster relief and curbing corruption.

Golub makes several recommendations to development organizations, chief among them to “consider greater support for legal empowerment and related civil society efforts that help affected populations avoid or reverse corrupt service delivery and advocate for concomitant policy, legal and institutional reforms.” Golub stresses that, while aid agencies want to make sure their funds are being used in a transparent and efficient manner, flexibility must be given when supporting legal empowerment and anti-corruption initiatives. He also recommends funding go towards qualitative and quantitative applied research to ascertain whether programs are creating the desired impact. Moreover, though his paper is critical of government-centered programming, Golub makes clear he is not calling for cuts in levels of development assistance. Instead, he recommends the maintenance or increase of development assistance levels.

NOTE: This summary is produced by the Rule of Law Collaborative, not by the original author(s).

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