Lessons from the Field: Kleinfeld, Bangladesh, and Serbia

So although my hands-on experience this summer has come from working here in NCSC’s home office, I thought I’d write today on the lessons I’ve learned regarding rule of law work in the field. While I’ve gotten a lot of diverse experience this summer, getting to go out into the field abroad was not one of those opportunities. Nevertheless, I’d like to think I’ve come away with some valuable lessons based on the exposure I’ve gained in this area.

1. Kleinfeld

I guess it’s easiest to start conceptually and work down, and so I’ll start with our discussion of Rachel Kleinfeld’s book Advancing the Rule of Law Abroad: Next Generation Reform. Tim had assigned this book to Amanda and me at the beginning of our internship. The theme of the book speaks directly to the work that NCSC does internationally, and so he figured it would be another good educational supplement to our internship. On Friday we had our discussion of the book, which included Amanda, Tim, myself, Ehrik (another intern), and a few other people from the office.

Overall the discussion was enlightening, especially as Tim and others were able to relate the theories in the book to their own experiences. At the same time, our discussion approached the book with a critical eye, which I found sparked some of our most effective talking points. For example, one of Kleinfeld’s central arguments is that modern rule of law reform must take a bottom-up approach, rather than a traditional top-down strategy. That is to say, rather than simply going into countries and redrafting their laws for them, aid agencies need to cooperate with and fund local NGO’s to draft legislation and push them through their governments, so that the people embrace the laws and consequently enforce and abide by them. In theory this seems logical, and indeed, Kleinfeld presents these theories in a way that the reader is baffled that no one has spelled this out before. But as Tim pointed out, she ignores a crucial question of sustainability. Many NGO’s have minimal revenue at their disposal, and most of their funding is coming from donors like the U.S. As such, once our reformers and the foreign money leave, how are these organizations to continue their work, whether it be pushing for new reforms or upholding the old ones. Similarly, how are these NGO’s going to gain access to the necessary channels for passing these laws and reforms. The advantage of working with top level officials is that you have direct access to the lawmaking, policymaking, or institution-making authorities.

This is not to say that I didn’t agree with many of Kleinfeld’s points or find the book beneficial. To the contrary, I thought she presented some compelling theories in a difficult area. While I would have liked more practical experience to have shone through, rather than interviews and outside research, I think the book sparks a valuable debate on the topic of rule of law reform.

2. Bangladesh

Moving toward the more practical, Friday I also finished my revisions of our subgrant agreements for the project in Bangladesh. Like Kleinfeld had argued for in her book, many of NCSC’s projects incorporate a grant element which gives funding to local NGO’s for specific projects. The field office in Bangladesh had recently approved grants for projects by five local NGO’s, and it was my job to revise the contracts by incorporating the relevant information from the project proposals. While the task itself was fairly tedious, involving a lot of document-merging, number-changing, and filling in the blanks, it did give me the opportunity to read the proposals for these projects. This I found extremely interesting, especially considering my lack of familiarity with Bangladesh. The project aims at improving access to justice throughout the country, and so the grant proposals followed this goal. Yet I found especially intriguing the strong focus on women in these projects. Many of the proposals outlined the horrible situations that women face in the rural and poor areas of Bangladesh, and the complete lack of cases brought despite the prevalent gender-motivated and sex crimes. In this light, the proposals took varying approaches to tackling this issue, but with some general themes. One such theme was improving the legal aid resources for the poor, especially the women, in Bangladesh. On a similar note, the proposals also emphasized improving awareness among the population regarding their rights and the resources available to them. Some of the most interesting vehicles for these endeavors were street-plays and skits designed to educate the people while engaging them as well. This was in addition to various meetings that were to be organized and pieces of literature that were to be produced, all seeking to help these people. After reading through these approved projects, I came away troubled by the harsh situations these people live in, but also strongly optimistic that these programs will help.

3. Serbia

Getting to some of the most practical exposure I have gotten in this area, today the Chief of Party (COP) of our Serbia project discussed with our office the project that he leads, along with his experiences so far. I found this particularly fascinating because of the extensive work I’ve been doing regarding the Serbia project. Along with reading over the contracts and reports for the project, I wrote a memo concerning USAID regulations, I updated and traced discrepancies in the Level of Effort reporting, and I wrote a success story regarding the grant projects. As such, I went into the meeting excited to hear about the field work of the project. In addition, it offered a good opportunity for me to see the practical side of the theories I had been learning. Much of our discussion centered on what the project was doing and how it was coming along, while touching on certain difficulties. Two years into the project, it seems to be doing very well. One example of a surprisingly simple improvement was regarding the courthouse renovations. They have done extensive remodeling of some of the courts and their management systems, and now they often have central desks in the lobby and open areas of the courts where people can come to get information or file paperwork, etc. While they previously had offices that did this work, the employees could easily close the door and not help the people that came in. In this way, this simple renovation has significantly increased the ease and access to court functions for citizens. This change also forces the court employees to interact with incoming people and generally be more outgoing, which then improves that persons experience and overall view of the court. It was also enlightening to listen to him discuss the challenges in day to day tasks, as well as for the broader goals of the project. For example, the complication getting judges and officials to buy into some of the broader reforms, and not just be focused on wanting a new, remodeled courthouse.

All in all, while I may have been limited to an office in Arlington for the summer, I feel fairly knowledgeable about NCSC’s projects in the field, and their practices, challenges, and successes.