Thinking About Thinking

The Rule of Law and the Global Poor

Posted in Philosophy by larrycheng on April 15, 2012

This weekend, I learned something fundamental and important about the plight of the global poor.  I learned that for most of the global poor, they live in a world without the rule of law.  What this means, quite simply, is that they live in a world where crimes committed against them go systematically unpunished.  In fact, because their status in society is so low, crimes committed against the poor may not even be considered crimes at all, despite their patent illegality.  Even worse, it is not uncommon for crimes to be committed against them by the very institutions we would expect to protect them –  law enforcement.

In a world of lawless lack of accountability, the primary weapon of intimidation and subjugation against the weakest of society is the oldest tool in the book: violence.  This leads to a tragic reality that the global poor are inordinately subjected to crimes of severe violence.

Imagine living in a world where you could permanently lose your home or farm because someone just decides to take it – by showing up at your front door, physically beating you, threatening your family at gunpoint, and forcing you out.  This act alone means you lose your income and shelter and your children become at serious risk of starvation.  And, you can do nothing about it.  Imagine living in a world where your child can be tricked and taken from you and trafficked into commercial sex trade.  You live with the knowledge that every day your child is violently coerced into repeatedly performing sex acts for customers in some far away brothel.  And, you can do nothing about it.  Imagine living in a world where you could be framed for crimes you did not commit and further be sentenced to death because you wouldn’t pay a bribe to the police.  You live in terror on death row as other innocent prisoners around you commit suicide having given up all hope.  And, you can do nothing about it.

Sadly, this is not an imaginary world for the global poor –  it is the stark reality of living in a world where the rule of law is absent.  This injustice is common and pervasive.  This weekend I was fortunate enough to meet with the global area directors from an organization that is enabling the poor to have a voice and to do something about it –  International Justice Mission (IJM).  IJM is an organization of lawyers and social workers doing good –  but the evil they face every day is profound.  The scenarios I described are the all-too-common real-life stories of people in places like Rwanda, Guatemala, Bolivia, India, The Philippines, Cambodia, and many others.  It is the reality for the global poor.

The impact of not having a functioning and honest criminal justice system has implications that extend well beyond the individual.  As Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros write in a Foreign Affairs article, And Justice for All, “The absence of functioning public justice systems for the poor jeopardizes half a century of development work, because there is no effective mechanism to prevent those in power from taking away and blocking access to the goods and services the development community is providing.”  The well-meaning efforts to provide the poor with sustenance, property, employment, skills, education, and healthcare, in some sense, rely on a fundamental assumption that is not true for most of the global poor –  that they have rights and those rights are enforced.  As Haugen and Boutros point out starkly, “Farming tools are of no use to widows whose land has been stolen.”

The absence of the rule of law perpetuates the cycle of poverty and injustice at the societal level.  If you want to help take a community, region, or country out of poverty –  one of the fundamental building blocks has to be the just rule of law.  As David Brooks wrote this week in a NY Times article, “You can cram all the nongovernmental organizations you want into a country, but if there is no rule of law and if the ruling class is predatory then your achievements won’t add up to that much.”  Unfortunately, the ruling class is predatory in much of the developing world.

The global poor live in a different world than we live in.  It is incredibly hard for us to imagine their real circumstance.  Our images of poverty are often associated with the absence of more tangible items of food, shelter, clothing and healthcare.  But, it is in fact the absence of that which is least tangible, the rule of law, which may ultimately be the most defining variable for the present and future plight of the global poor.


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