personal reflections on human rights...and other stuff

Development effectiveness: "What can be done?" - An easy question without an easy answer


A young friend of mine currently volunteering for a youth organization in Malawi expressed his frustration the other day because the criminal justice system in the country was apparently doing nothing to combat serious crimes such as the rape of young girls. He said the police are reluctant to do anything unless there is an incentive for them.

I completely understand my friend’s frustration. The question – frequently asked, frequently met with solutions or strategies or ideas – is simple enough: What can be done?

Many times the answers, from governments to NGOs to donor agencies, come in the form of projects or programs or incentives or professional development aimed at “strengthening” someone’s “capacity.” I’ve used “capacity building” enough times in my career to realize the utter ambiguousness of the term but at the same time I am reluctant to let it go for lack of finding a more suitable term.

Years working on human rights issues have (at least I think) cleared things up for me. I was in my friend’s shoes nearly twenty years ago, a young volunteer in that same country (and same town), full of enthusiasm and irrepressible energy aimed at changing the world. The harshness of the poverty in Malawi assaulted my senses and left me with a sense of anger. The anger was partly directed inward at my own inability to change things quickly enough, partly directed towards the undefined mass of people everywhere more fortunate than the poor in Malawi but too ignorant or apathetic to care, and partly directed towards those in Malawi who could make a difference but chose not to.

The last group – those who could make a difference in Malawi but didn’t – bugged me. I sometimes looked at my fellow teachers and became frustrated at their listless attitude towards their profession. Some taught when they felt like it. One teacher refused to teach for a week because the students did not stand up as he entered the classroom one day. They occasionally went on strike and stayed in the staffroom drinking tea. Hard to change the world when you’re surrounded by a lot of blah.

Empathy went a long way towards understanding their attitudes. Most had not chosen their careers: there were few options in Malawi. If you were fortunate enough to get an education, you either became a nurse, a teacher, or some other type of civil servant. Most had extended families to care for. Everyone got paid once a month (if they were lucky), and the amount was usually less than 200 dollars. How do you expect them to change the world?

The police were no better. If a crime took place, it was the responsibility of the victim to go to the police station and find transportation to bring the police to the crime scene. I found that out when my place was broken into. A friend walked to the police station, found an officer, and took a taxi with him to my place. I never gave the officer any money, but then again, I doubt any effort was made to catch those who robbed me. The corruption remains in place today from my friend’s insight, and while I will never find any form of corruption justifiable, I understand why it happens. There is no accountability, there are no services, there is no support, there is no reason to work with a strong sense of ethics and get nothing in return. It’s just not in a police offer’s interests to do things right unless he or she will get something for their effort.

To get back to my friend’s question – What can be done? – a rights-based approach would make sure that those whose rights have been violated know and claim their rights and those who should be accountable also know how to fulfill their obligations. In the case of a young girl being raped, police officers have an obligation to investigate the crime, find and prosecute those responsible, and to do so quickly. The fact that the police won’t do anything unless you give them money is partly due to their ethics but also fed by an inefficient criminal justice system; now we’re getting into systemic issues, in other words, there is a bigger picture to consider. The difficulty is that solutions (either by governments, NGOs or donors) are too often compartmentalized and project specific aimed at changing a lot of micro stuff at the expense of neglecting a macro picture. The police officer who came to my house in Malawi after I was robbed had proof of this in his hands: he carried with him a briefcase with state of the art fingerprint-detecting equipment. His pre-CSI gadgetry was of little use for a police officer who had to take a taxi to a crime scene. But perhaps a donor thought it was a good idea at the time.

The solution – the ever present “capacity building” – must also be directed towards educating children, their parents, and ultimately communities in general about protecting the rights of children. The Convention on the Rights of the Child essentially states that any decisions made that will affect the lives of children must take into consideration their “best interests.” These are not mere words: they must also be reflected in the actions we undertake to protect our children from violent offenders. Children must feel safe at home, in the schools, and elsewhere in the community. The creation of those safe spaces will in one way or another reduce the possibility of placing children in vulnerable positions where their rights can be violated. These are measures to prevent the crimes form happening in the first place. Add to this the need to provide support for those who are already victims.

All this to say that there is never an easy solution to one problem. But anger, like the kind I had all those years ago witnessing the injustice, corruption, and poverty around me in Malawi, is not an answer. However, I do think that anger, when properly redirected, can be a rechanneled into positive force of change. After all, we do want to change things for the better because what we see now makes us angry.



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