The next Millennium Development Goal: Justice

I was just reading a piece by Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese/Brit mogul who transformed the African continent by pioneering access to cell technology in developing countries and then moved on to be an major voice for good governance.

As the debate on the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals unfolds at the United Nations this year, it is my fervent hope that African governments will endorse the inclusion within these goals of measurable targets for access to justice. To be sure, the dominant themes that are emerging in the UN discussions – jobs, economic growth, infrastructure development, and poverty reduction – are all still desperately needed across the continent. But the rule of law is a fundamental principle that does more than promote economic growth, and it would be a serious mistake not to include it in the SDG agenda.

Uhh… yeah? For all of the traditional developmental talk that went into the original UN MDGs, there was little mention of demanding that countries install formal and reliable legal protections for their citizens. In fact, the MDG’s asked very little of governments at all, offering benchmarks and encouraging funding for projects, but avoiding the bear of requiring that countries get their political houses in order.

Though the MDG’s made sense at the time, they were inherently paternalistic and offered little to protect the welfare of those whose sad condition was a result of a lack of reliable political representation and legal protection. Amartya Sen famously pointed out in the late 90’s that famines do not occur in functioning democracies with legal protections for free expression, underscoring the role that political development can play in protecting the public health. The new SDG’s would do well to recognize that human development cannot occur simply by throwing pharmaceuticals and money at the problem.

Though the failure of the original MDGs to address matters of broad policy can’t be divorced from the neoliberal context which informed them, it’s hard to say that their weak nature wasn’t wholly unreasonable. The 80’s and 90’s were a time of chaos and decay and a universal approach which bypassed bigger issues of institutional development was likely the only way forward. However, in 2014, the Sustainable Development Goals (the replacement for the MDG’s) will have to address issues of legal and fiscal policy along with, as I’ve repeatedly suggested, encouraging private sector business development.

The law is the basis upon which all other policy stands. Without an equitable and dependable foundation, issues of land rights, distribution and provision of services and citizen representation will be impossible to rectify.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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