If we build it, they won’t come: why culture must be addressed when establishing the rule of law in

“Countries lack the rule of law not because they are ignorant of technical legal issues or are too poor to purchase the proper equipment. Rather, they have ill-formed governance institutions and … inimical interests within these countries are … actively working to undermine the rule of law—and the local culture is not strong enough to stop these practices.” Rachel Kleinfeld: Policy Outlook September 4, 2013

This quote highlights a reality that most of us doing the day-to-day work with courts in developing countries around the world have known for a long time. Unfortunately, that reality has never been accepted by funding agencies. They have gone forward year after year funding cookie cutter projects in developing countries focusing on court automation, case management, judicial education, courthouse renovation, etc. This approach seems to have been motivated, at least in large part, by the naïve assumption that, just like in the aptly named American fantasy movie Field of Dreams, “If you build it they will come.”

The idea that the local culture of government corruption and criminality would be magically changed by the improvement of courts as an institution has proven to be as fanciful as the movie. While a well-functioning court system is a necessary condition for a strong rule of law environment in a country, it is by no means a sufficient condition to produce this. Without a very long-term, well-funded, carefully conceived, and deftly executed plan for culture change surrounding the rule of law in developing countries, the advancement of a commitment to a strong rule of law component in society is doomed to failure and no amount of technical assistance will save the day.

Even though there are excellent works providing guideposts for shifting rule of law work toward a more effective, outcome driven, culture focused approach, (see for example Post-conflict Rule of Law Building: The Need for a Multi-Layered, Synergistic Approach by Jane Stromseth) it unfortunately appears highly doubtful that this level of commitment to rule of law development will be made by any of the usual funding sources any time soon, if at all.

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