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Developing nations need peace and legal savvy, too

NCR Staff

Most people would have no trouble ticking off needs in the developing world: decent health care, safe drinking water, universal education, food, jobs, peace. It’s a catalog of deprivation that’s depressingly easy to flesh out.

What about lawyers?

Litigation-weary Americans, for whom Shakespeare’s famous proposal in “Henry VI,” “Let’s kill all the lawyers,” can sometimes sound tempting, might suspect developing countries have enough problems.

Things look different, however, from Zambia.

“I was involved in the negotiations over the privatization of our mines, which are the breadbasket of my country,” said Julia Chaila, a Zambian attorney, in an April 10 interview with NCR.

“There we were, Zambian lawyers, sitting in the back of the room, while two groups of foreign lawyers, one for the investors and one for us, did all the negotiating. It was pathetic.”

Zambia, a nation of 8.5 million in southern Africa, recently sold its wealthy copper mines to private investors as part of an economic reform promoted by the World Bank. The company Chaila works for was bought by a consortium based in England and the United States.

“Now,” Chaila said, “the population feels it got a bad deal. Meanwhile all the lawyers are gone -- they’re back in London or Paris -- and who’s left to explain to our people what happened?”

Chaila, a sharp-witted and composed young professional, aspires to be part of a new generation of African lawyers, able to slug it out in complex negotiating sessions with the most sophisticated Western attorneys.

She is halfway through 10 weeks of a course in Rome offered by the International Development Law Institute, a nonprofit organization with 15 governments, including the United States, as official members. Its mission is to train legal professionals in the developing world.

For veterans of social justice crusades, it may be a stretch to think of investment contracts and bank deals as tools for building a better world. Yet that’s exactly what the institute believes -- taking to the law books rather than the streets in pursuit of a better future for the world’s most impoverished nations.

In addition to training lawyers, judges and other legal professionals, the institute helps rebuild shattered legal systems in such places as Albania and East Timor.

Participants pay nothing, drawing on sponsorships either from sources in their own countries or public and private sector donors. More than 10,000 people have taken part in institute programs since it was founded in 1983.

William Loris, the director, told NCR that he worked in Africa for 10 years for the U.S. Agency for International Development. He saw time and again the disadvantage developing countries face.

“There was an African nation that wanted a tile factory,” Loris said. “The contract was written in such a way that payment was on a time basis without any guarantees for performance.”

After five years, the contractor had all its money, while the government hadn’t seen a single tile.

“No lawyers had reviewed that contract,” Loris said. “This was a small European company that just saw what it could get away with.”

Inspired by such experiences, Loris said the institute’s original vision, as developed by him and co-founders Michael Hager and Gilles Blanchi, was to help lawyers wrest better deals from banks, corporations and bodies such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

The central insight is that the massive inequalities facing the developing world were not imposed all at once. They are the result of a long history of exploitation, dishonesty and deals made in bad faith, which continues today. If the balance is to be righted, local professionals need the skills to beat the developed world at its own game.

Quickly, Loris said, the institute realized that in many places a basic infrastructure of good governance is missing. Hence the institute also promotes systemic reform on issues ranging from transparency and freedom of information to investment law.

As one might expect when bright, articulate lawyers from around the world come together, not everyone sees things the same way. One participant told NCR that while he appreciates the institute’s efforts, he thinks it has the cart before the horse.

“Lawyers are there, really, to protect the interests of property,” said David Nambale, a lawyer and anti-corruption official in the Ugandan government. “It’s a profession that fits in neatly with a developed economy. We’re not there yet.”

Nambale, who charms listeners with his smiling, tell-it-like-it-is style, said he would be more in favor of efforts to spread universal primary education, as opposed to training a legal elite.

Other participants, however, said the future is now, as far as the need for adversarial savvy.

“These people from the West are coming to take our public property, and we need to negotiate with them,” said Zephrine Galeba, of Tanzania. “If we are not very careful, they will take it for free.”

Nambale was respectful, but blunt.

“You can have all the skills you want. But if it’s you sitting across the table from Microsoft, in the end they’re going to win,” he said. “First address the imbalance in resources, and then this training will make more sense.”

The International Development Law Institute forms part of what Italians call “the other Rome,” referring to the secular, non-papal aspect of the city’s identity. It includes the civil government, since Rome is the capital of Italy, and a vast array of nongovernmental organizations and humanitarian groups.

The two Romes often intersect at the grassroots in pursuit of doing good. Such is the case with the institute, which enjoys a sweetheart deal on a building in the Spanish Steps section of old Rome, courtesy of a women’s religious community called the Poor Servants of the Mother of God. The community was founded in England, but its membership is predominantly Irish.

The property was a school for 107 years until the sisters decided to close in 1992. They considered scores of offers for the property but decided to forgo cashing in for the sake of supporting the institute’s mission.

Sr. Mary Duffy, superior of the eight nuns who still live in one wing of the building, said the community was attracted by the focus on development rather than simple charity.

“There’s a story told about our founder,” Duffy, a classic no-nonsense Irish nun, told NCR. “A man came to the door for a handout and she gave him a shovel. He worked for what he got. He was looking for charity and went away a different person,” she said.

“We believe in the dignity of work. That’s what the institute is about, too.”

In fact, Duffy may herself find use for its expertise. Speaking of the market value of the Rome property, Duffy said the community would have to be careful if they ever want to sell, having had a bad experience on a similar deal in Florence.

“First of all, we’re women, and second we’re nuns, so everybody’s got a rip-off,” she sighed.

Perhaps one of these days she’ll send a sister upstairs for a course in contracts.

The International Development Law Institute has a Web site at www.idli.org

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, April 20, 2001