Justice for All: Back-Burner Issue or Backbone of Sustainable Development?


While the world is putting out fires on the fronts of the climate emergency, global health crises, and violent conflicts, justice does not get the attention it deserves. Its complexity and deep-seated nature can make people hesitant to address justice issues head on. But it is more important than ever to realize that justice is not a back-burner issue, it is a backbone issue and must be brought to the forefront of action on the SDGs. Creating a just society and providing justice for all is one of the pillars of SDG 16+, and is central to overcoming the world’s most wide-spread and pressing challenges. In order to deal with the root causes of the problems the world faces today, we need to address systemic and structural injustices that have developed or been created over time. This also means changing how we approach these challenges from the get-go.

Last week, the Pathfinders hosted a brown bag session at NYU-CIC, with leading researchers on people-centered justice: Clare Manuel, Marcus Manuel, and Pilar Domingo of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), and Colleen Duggan, and Adrian Di Giovanni of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). The panelists outlined their research and the importance of funding justice projects that are locally minded, far-reaching, and support the achievement of broader development goals.

By Ariana Lippi Program Assistant, Justice at Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies

(Photo: Oxfam East Africa, Wikimedia Commons)

Understanding the Fundamentals:

For justice initiatives to achieve sustainable socio-political and multi-dimensional outcomes for people, a culture of evidence and learning is required. With the understanding that is gained through research — suggests Duggan — we are able to address conditions of vulnerability and nurture the development of peacebuilding capacities across an inclusive spectrum of actors in the Global North and South.

Gaining local insight also prevents a sense of fatalism in the face of a seemingly gargantuan issue and equips people with the tools necessary to make better informed decisions at all levels of implementation. Adrian di Giovanni emphasizes that the power of research allows us to better understand how people confront and overcome justice challenges. This is a crucial element to “sustaining the flame of justice. Without it, we risk fumbling in the dark or trying to torch competing views through force of conviction alone.”

Shifting the Narrative:

The Justice for All Report estimates that 5.1 billion people — two thirds of the world’s population — lack meaningful access to justice. Half of the people that face a justice problem, never see it resolved and over 4.5 billion people are excluded from the opportunities the law provides. It is empirically more than evident that access to justice and delivery of justice are wide-spread and systemic problems.

Yet, while universal access to justice was set as a global goal for the first time in the 2030 Agenda, international aid allocated for the justice sector has decreased by 40% in the past five years, as ODI has reported. In fact, in the past ten years, no more than 2% of all global aid is allocated for justice, and only 3% in conflict-affected areas. This level of allocation is wholly inadequate to address justice needs.

ODI has done a costing exercise that shows that funding justice for all is a long-term investment in society. Allocation for even basic justice initiatives at a small cost produces a high return and significant impacts. The calculated cost for basic justice needs is only $20 per person per year in low income countries, but most of those countries can only afford $5. Yet, a recent UN and World Bank cost-benefit analysis of legal services reveals that scaled-up financial support to meet basic justice services can save countries between $5 billion and $7 billion per year. The gap in the justice sector is locking many countries into a narrative of short-term growth or stagnation and preventing them from supporting sustainable projects that create holistic growth.

A second problem is that is that, even when there is funding, it isn’t always utilized effectively. At the brown bag discussion, the researchers and audience members discussed the history of international development funding and implementation, themes that run through all SDG goals. Since their inception, committed actions towards the SDGs have made an immense difference in several areas, but they still fall short of many of their promises.

Community Legal Engagement: Housing project identifying problems of extreme poverty and exclusion in Tarija, Bolivia (Photo: Nataly Vargas, Universidad Autónoma Juan Misael Saracho, partner of IDRC)

Historically — and sometimes presently — funding for development work in general can often produce a streetlight effect. In other words, wherever the funding goes is where the most light is shed on the topic and vice versa. As a result, projects tended to be narrowly focused on the donor’s view of the situation without exploring the true drivers of the problem or doing due diligence to understand best practices. While there have been major strides to address these issues in the past two decades, there are still major faults that need to be addressed.

Many donor-led initiatives tied to external funding (within both philanthropy and foreign aid) have created projects that have been superficial and short-sighted, and which were guided by the interests of Global North donors who are sometimes out of touch with the needs of individuals. Further studies by ODI found that currently about 94% of grassroots legal empowerment organizations receive no funding from their national or local governments. They rely on external donors. Therefore, countless projects have very likely excluded those who they are meant to help, ironically further ingraining administrative, procedural and other forms of injustice.

Organizations like ODI and IDRC have provided a crucial foundation of information about the existing gaps and the shifts in thinking that need to happen to better finance access to justice. We need to learn from shortcomings of the past and the evidence of community success.

Justice is a profoundly cross-cutting and deeply rooted issue, which is at the heart of the Sustainable Development Agenda. Without concerted effort to achieve justice for all, the rest of the goals will be gridlocked and never fully realized. Funding justice initiatives the right way — even if it is for the first time — unlocks the opportunity to elevate efforts across all SDGs. Most importantly, people themselves must be empowered to play a central role in the creation of a more just world.

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Ariana Lippi
Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies

Writer, student & Fulbright alumna. Passionately writing monthly about environmental justice, peace, and equity.