But “we risk allowing these gains to come undone if we fail to strengthen the rule of law in developing countries,” according to two leading experts.
“Without basic legal empowerment, the poor live an uncertain existence, in fear of deprivation, displacement and dispossession,” say George Soros and Fazle Hasan Abed:
A juvenile is wrongfully detained and loses time in school; village land is damaged by a mining company without compensation; an illiterate widow is denied the inheritance she is entitled to and is forced on to the streets with her children. By what means can individuals and communities protect their rights in daily life?
Democracy advocates have long insisted on the integral relationship of development, democracy and the rule of law, whether it’s sustaining democratic reform in Burma or defending civil society in Russia.
Basic democratic rights, including freedom of association, can only be safeguarded by robust rule of law. In Southeast Asia and China, for instance, the American Center for International Labor Solidarity promotes the rule of law through legal research and technical assistance to legal advocates, scholars, community groups, and civil society, in a 5-country program funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.
Highlighting the linkages between economic freedom, prosperity, and democracy, private sector groups like the Free Enterprise and Democracy Network (FEDN) contend that market institutions and rule of law establish the necessary conditions for democratic governance.
Rule of law is also a precondition of sustainable citizen empowerment, but – as Soros and Abed note – tens of millions of people lack a legal identity, such as a birth certificate.
“This identity is the cornerstone of justice,” they write. “Without it, one may be denied opportunities to overcome poverty, including access to immunizations, school, land deeds and welfare.”
Legislation alone cannot safeguard fundamental rights, say Soros and Abed, the founders and chairmen respectively of the Open Society Foundations and of BRAC, a civil society group:
Governments must implement concrete measures, or enable civil society to do so, making sure the poor are fully aware of rights under the law.
In many places, laws exist on paper to protect the vulnerable from exploitation, yet informal norms and institutions hold sway, and all too often, these norms and institutions work against the poor and vulnerable, women especially. Where the formal legal system is itself corrupt, there should also be mechanisms such as alternative dispute resolution, which work to provide justice outside the courts.
These need not be costly solutions. We have already seen how they might work in places such as Bangladesh, where civil society organizations like BRAC have strengthened the legal rights of the poor by training thousands of “barefoot lawyers” in poor communities.
“Events in Tahrir Square and beyond have sparked optimism about a global democratic resurgence,” they conclude:
But at the same time, there is fear of instability and lawlessness. ….Strengthening the rule of law is more important than ever. A legally empowered citizenry is both the guarantor and lifeblood of democracy.