Our Perspectives

Rule of law : The key to the ‘virtuous circle’


Policemen at General Kaahiye Police Academy in Somalia undergo training in criminal investigation, to equip Mogadishu with a team of police officers that will effectively be able to deal with criminal investigations. Photo: UNSOM

Does rule of law matter for development?  What role should it play in the post-2015 agenda?  It’s an important issue.  We, at UNDP, advocate for strengthened rule of law and access to justice, but the issue is how to get them prioritized among many competing targets and goals for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and get governments to put budgets and political will behind them.  We need to prove that human development can’t be achieved without them.

We still have a long way to go to make the case.  One popular argument is that without good rule of law and secure property rights, countries cannot attract the foreign investment they need for growth.  But the empirical foundation for that claim is rather weak.  It seems that the economies of the Asian tigers began to boom long before they established rule of law, with China and Vietnam being just the most recent examples.  More importantly for us, this argument doesn’t help to understand whether rule of law will deliver better outcomes for the poorest and most vulnerable, who are the focus of our work.

Recently, I focused on the work of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, and in particular their recent book “Why Nations Fail”, which argues that inclusive governance is the key to development.  If a small elite can hold on to most of the power and wealth, they will have no incentive to allow innovations which can make society as a whole richer, but at the expense of their own privileges.  Their own historical study concluded that rule of law is essential to create the ‘virtuous circle’ that transforms ‘extractive’ societies into inclusive ones.   My argument to explain this is that universal laws which reflect human rights are the basis of the ‘social contract’ which alone can underpin equal access to assets and political power.  This also means that rule of law and human rights are inseparable.

As member states enter the last phase of discussions that will shape the post-2015 agenda, it is more urgent than ever to develop a more convincing foundation of research and evidence to convince our partners in the development community and in governments around the world that rule of law really is the key to turning the virtuous circle and to bringing higher human development around the world.

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