The U.S. Agency for International Development has updated its policy for promoting the rule of law in countries where the agency operates. The new approach emphasizes what USAID calls people-centered justice. To examine what that is all about, Federal Drive with Tom Temin  spoke with USAID’s Miranda Jolicoeur, the team lead for justice, human rights and security.

Interview transcript:

Miranda Jolicoeur So USAID for a long time has promoted rule of law overseas through our missions and our Foreign Service officers. I’m actually a Foreign Service officer that’s come back to Washington after being overseas for about 11 years. We work very closely with our local staff called Foreign Service Nationals, and we develop country strategies that determine what the needs are through analysis and engagement with our partner, country, government and civil society. I think, we’ve developed this, our new rule of law policy to really affirm USAID’s commitment to rule of law globally as essential to democratic governance and sustainable development.

Tom Temin Sure. And there is a release out stating that you have updated the policy. So what’s new and different now relative to the way you did it before?

Miranda Jolicoeur Actually, this is our first ever rule of law policy. USAID did not have a rule of law policy, before we added democracy, human rights and governance policy. This is, in fact, the U.S. government’s first policy on rule of law assistance. And we recognize that, as I said, rule of law is essential. We see rising threats to the rule of law across the globe. And this importantly, shifts our efforts to people centered justice, misses evolving evidence and the rule of law field of what is needed to close a 5.1 billion global justice gap. So we’re looking at a 60% of people globally that do not have their justice needs met. And we know that is a threat for democracy.

Tom Temin Well, is USAID trying to promote this person centered justice through the programs that would be doing otherwise in a country? Or is there a new channel of aid in different countries to help them develop a justice system that delivers what you would call, the personal justice that people require?

Miranda Jolicoeur So people centered justice. For decades, USAID has been doing rule of law work. And actually, in the development of this policy, we have reviewed about 340 of our rule of law programs and 83 of the countries where we’ve worked. And what we realized, well, we’ve been doing pieces of what we call people centered justice that really focus the reform and justice systems on people’s needs, that we didn’t have an approach that really looked at it systematically to reform systems from people’s needs. So maybe if I could give an example that would help listeners. If you look at medical health needs, you likely look at the needs of those that have health problems. You don’t immediately go to building, building hospitals or just reforming systems without that information. And so really we’re trying to transform what we do by using data and information and engagement with people to understand those needs to reform systems. And that changes not reforming a system and having a justice institution improve as an end in and of itself, but how are we actually meeting outcomes by delivering what people need.

Tom Temin Because you’re operating in foreign countries in a sense at their pleasure and permission. How do you know they want USAID or anybody from the United States telling them how to deliver their justice systems?

Miranda Jolicoeur That’s a great point. And I think for us, what’s really important is that we work in partnership with the countries where we work. So we’re talking about how we engage with host country governments, how we introduce this process of collecting data and engaging with people on their wants and justice needs, and really demonstrating that this is often a cost savings for justice systems. So, for example, by looking at census data in a country, we can understand where populations are located and then be able to kind of adjust financial resources with partner countries to what those needs are. And so, I think we understand, and are working with partner governments to understand that is really needed for economic development. And I think many of the countries where we work, they want to see improvements in rule of law, because they want investments. They want economic improvements.

Tom Temin We are speaking with Miranda Jolicoeur. She is team lead for justice, human rights and security at the U.S. Agency for International Development. So give us an example of the type of project that could result in this, and in the people centered justice, and what are the types of data you might collect in pursuit of that? You mentioned census data, for example.

Miranda Jolicoeur I think, what people centered justice asked first and foremost is what people want and need when they seek justice, and that could be criminal, civil or administrative. So we may conduct something that we call a justice need survey, and those have been done in many countries where that at the baseline kind of identifies what those needs and wants are. And then we work with both partner country governments and we analyze what that data tells us, what evidence approaches tell us, and then what are most viable solutions. And what we like to say, is there are multiple pathways of justice, so it may not exist only in a formal system. So I’ll give you an example from when I worked in Kosovo. We reviewed a number of cases within the courts. The courts were really having a hard time, because they were so overloaded with the backlog of cases. We determined, together with court officials and judicial officials, that the predominant need were property cases. Those were on contentious property cases. So we worked with officials to understand that there was a possible solution outside of the formal justice system to help people resolve those property needs. We know in West Africa, for example, we’ve worked on traditional justice where people have resolved their needs for a long time through traditional justice. And we know that with 5.1 billion justice needs, we have to look at a wider lens, because justice systems aren’t financially equipped and able to meet all of the needs that are out there.

Tom Temin In other words, there might be a legal framework which is designed to deliver justice in a given nation. But somewhere along the line it actually doesn’t get delivered by the system. And so USAID then would help those countries develop the delivery system, for lack of a better word. Such that the justice that might have been envisioned by the country’s founders or its constitution writers, actually does get delivered. Is that a fair way to put it?

Miranda Jolicoeur I think it’s a fair way to put it. I think also when we talk about legal frameworks, in some countries there has been a legal culture for quite a long time. And I think it’s being able to look at that legal culture that may exist in formally. Formal legal frameworks and how do we look at that by using data to really drive and understand what people need, what they want, and try to meet those needs. And we know that reduces conflict around the world. It’s a prevention venture. In fact, for many of the other humanitarian and development work that we do globally.

Tom Temin Because in many countries there might be a cultural or religious or tribal tradition that exists overlaid on whatever the modern legal structure they might have. And therefore, in some eyes, justice gets delivered. But it looks pretty grotesque sometimes, actually, from our standpoint.

Miranda Jolicoeur I think that’s correct. I think we can look at a number of different justice traditions, whether you call them an overlay or an underlay. I think there are systems that exist from colonial powers that they might argue, some religious may. So I think there are different ways. I think what we understand is that there is a cultural premise for justice that exists. And as USAID, we never want to legal, there’s no legal transplants. We don’t say this is what works in the United States, let’s bring this overseas. I think it’s really working with those countries to understand what people want and need. And I think people centered justice, most importantly, gives us an avenue to focus on marginalized people. So if we are talking about women overseas, they’re wants and needs may be the need for a daycare and court so they can actually access the justice system, but they’re unable to otherwise.

Tom Temin Interesting. So, I guess, you could add to women many other types of communities, including, say, minority communities within that context of that nation that often don’t quite partake fully in justice delivery and outcomes.

Miranda Jolicoeur Absolutely. We know in many countries where we work. I was most recently in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Indigenous communities that never had access to the formal system, or if they did have access to the formal system, it was under military courts where they were being prosecuted did for violating a variety of infractions. And I think this gives us the ability to really sit down with those communities, listen to what it is that they need, and be able to respond with them.