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In July, the World Justice Forum IV (organized by the World Justice Project) brought together more than 550 business and nonprofit leaders, legal experts, development practitioners, journalists, military leaders, social entrepreneurs, and other global luminaries from more than 100 countries to address critical rule of law issues around the world. In partnership with the Skoll World Forum and the Thomson Reuters Foundation, we asked a number of speakers to reflect on a wide range of issues including land rights, access to water, criminal justice, and much more. View the full series here.
The rule of law is a many splendored thing. It means different things to different people with different levels of certainty about different systems that do different things, which all, hopefully, contribute to a more stable, just world. The aspiration toward a just world, though, is the undeniable commonality in all rule of law circles. It was the one, clear common ground held by all of the attendees of the World Justice Forum IV, despite the wide diversity of interpretations, backgrounds, and topics. In other words, we all agree on what we want, but we all have different perspectives about how to achieve it.
The way to achieve the rule of law is not for one perspective to prevail, but to connect as many successful approaches as possible into a common framework for how we operate as a civilized world. In many ways, technology--and the growing field of legal technology--is providing a blueprint for how to do just that.
As Santiago Siri said in the opening keynote, good technology is ultimately about designing systems that improve efficiency, outcomes, and, ultimately, justice. What Santiago didn’t say is that the most important and defining characteristic of these systems is the plurality of ways that people access them. The most popular technology products in the world--like Google and Facebook and WeChat--are all accessible almost everywhere, from almost any device. These services reach billions of people by applying a principle that holistic lawyers have been advocating for decades: the most effective systems create as many points of access as possible, and treat everyone the same way once they’re there.
Perhaps funnily, technologists and lawyers are both so passionate about building a better world that they tend to fall prey to the same fallacy--to believe that with the right design we will all end up using the system. Let me be frank about my perspective. I do not believe that we ever have all done things the same way and, as far as I can tell, we never will. That’s not a bad thing- it means that we’re able to grow, experiment, and adapt to our changing culture, infrastructure, and societies. It does mean, though, that we need to focus less on managing everyone with one system, and more on building better linkages between the multiple systems and channels already in use.
The good news is that the way forward is right in front of us. Sophistication, whether in law or technology, requires good infrastructure, education, and the resources to participate. Sophisticated systems, however, tend to favor the fortunate- particularly in urban areas. But sophistication isn’t required for all things- most things can be solved, or at least improved, with the informal and accessible systems that people already use.
The rule of law and the Internet (the most sophisticated communication technology to date) are surprisingly similar: both provide incredible advantages to their users, helping reduce vulnerability while increasing education, financial security, and the protection of basic rights. As Faustina Pereira (and the UN) notes, 4 billion people lack access to the rule of law. Similarly, the Internet is accessible to less than 40 percent of the world’s population, leaving behind about the same number of people. These numbers aren’t perfect and access is no proxy for use, for there are many levels of participation and privilege in both systems. But the disparity illustrates something very clearly: both the rule of law and the Internet are increasingly fundamental to the way that nearly everything works and the people they leave behind are falling further and further into vulnerability. And though both systems face resource and market restrictions, if they’re to succeed in bridging the gap and reaching the majority of the world, they’ll have to start by adapting to the way the majority of the world already does things.
Informal justice systems are a vital part of day-to-day life for nearly everyone, and the same can be said (these days) of the mobile phone. Nearly everyone has helped arbitrate a family problem or a property dispute with a neighbor- and nearly every community in the world has a trusted system for solving the problems they face. It’s almost impossible to quantify the prevalence of informal systems, because, well, they are largely marginalized for being sub-standard or insufficient. But take BRAC, for example, by working through a combination of approaches--including paralegals, legal extension services, and a number of other “informal” approaches--they’ve become the world’s largest non-governmental provider of legal services. BRAC is an inspiring example, like many of their peers, of the incredible gains that are possible when we link informal approaches with formal rule of law systems.
Similarly, the low-end mobile phone, despite having comparatively limited functionality, has become the world’s most used technology. According to the International Telecommunications Union, an astounding 96.2 percent of the world has access to a mobile phone (6.8 billion) and there are more than 3.2 billion actual, active users. There are two main channels hard-wired into nearly every phone on the planet: calls and text messages (Short Message Service or SMS for short). The text message, often dismissed for being short, has become the world’s most used written communication service, with some estimates putting the number of text messages sent per year at 9.4 trillion. That’s almost 300,000 messages per second.
At FrontlineSMS, we’ve built one of the world’s first and most popular professional SMS tools. Our tools have been downloaded more than 100,000 times and are currently being used in more than 135 countries to improve everything from healthcare to governance and, of course, legal services. I first founded the FrontlineSMS:Legal project in 2010 with the belief that by using the world’s most used technology, we could connect the people and systems necessary to improve the rule of law. And we’ve been fortunate enough to work with a large number of organizations and governments who have embraced the power of SMS to improve the vital, formal work that they do. Our tools have been used in land administration, election monitoring, gender-based violence response, agricultural extension, and paralegal dispute resolution- just to name a few examples. In many of these cases, organizations have been able to improve cost and time efficiencies by 50 percent or more. By giving legal service providers tools that save resources, we’re increasing the number of people they’re able to help and the number of problems they solve.
This isn’t meant to suggest that informal approaches or SMS are the platforms that should be used everywhere, in every case. In fact, my point is that we should stop suggesting that one approach or one platform will ever work in every case. What I am saying is that there’s a place for informal systems and formal systems, for the Internet and the mobile phone, and that if we’re going to achieve the one thing that unites us all--the hope for a more just world--we’re going to have to use them all. Together.
Editor's Note: Sean Martin McDonald is the CEO of FrontlineSMS’s social enterprise, the Social Impact Lab, and the founder of the FrontlineSMS:Legal project.