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The Rule of Law: universal in theory, but confusing and difficult to promote in practice

Published: 06th September 2021 Last updated: 06th September 2021

The Rule of Law is purportedly a universal value that has been guiding international interventions in the legal systems of countries around the world since the mid 1990s. It became and has remained a dominant concept in development work largely because it has been useful and versatile for policymakers and international development agencies to explain and justify such work over the past three decades. However, for those whose job it is to actually do the work of promoting the rule of law, it is neither universal nor singular. Instead, for them it is something with many meanings, and that makes it elusive, difficult to understand, and very hard to ‘develop’ anywhere . That is what Michael Leach concludes in his dissertation about the Rule of Law in international development which he will defend on Monday September 13th, 2021 at Tilburg University.

For the past thirty years, the ‘Rule of Law’ has been a dominant conceptual frame for legal and governance reform work in international development. Projects that seek to ‘foster’ or ‘promote’ the Rule of Law have been a ubiquitous part of international development work seeking to improve the governance of developing countries.  However, to those who actually do the work of promoting the Rule of Law on international development projects, the Rule of Law is a frustrating concept whose reality often makes little sense. It is somehow ‘everywhere’ in international development work, but it is also ambiguous and meaningless to those who work with it.  Practitioners find it difficult to understand and even harder to apply anywhere, even though it is supposedly a transcendent and universal value. For many, its meaning is even irrelevant to the work that they do in its name.

Fragmented meaning

Michael Leach took these paradoxical appearances of the Rule of Law to those who work with it as an entry point to providing an alternative, relational description of what makes the concept of the Rule of Law meaningful in international development. Using qualitative empirical data from 40 semi-structured interviews with development professionals, he explored the concept’s paradoxical social reality as a way of addressing how and why concepts like it ‘work’ in international development.

His data and findings detail how the institutional structures and procedures of international development policymaking and project work modify and fragment the meaning and meaningfulness of the Rule of Law both within and among organizations and actors at multiple levels. Over the past three decades, international development agencies have adapted the concept to make it useful to justify what they do and to organize their work, and in doing so they have changed and fragmented its meaning in multiple, often confusing ways. The result is that there is no clear or singular way of understanding what the ‘Rule of Law’ is in international development because it can mean many different things to different people in different places.

Justification of political choices

According to Leach this means that one cannot say that in practice the Rule of Law’s meaning is universal, nor that we can or should expect it to guide international development interventions, even though it is often claimed to do just that. In practice, the main purpose and utility of the concept of the Rule of Law lies in how it is used to justify political choices made by development agencies, and practitioners, rather than guiding or shaping international development work. This, he concludes, is how concepts like the Rule of Law ‘work’ in international development.

Michael (Mike) Leach (b. 1976) is a Canadian lawyer who pursued legal studies at Oxford, McGill and the University of Ottawa, and between 2008 and 2011 he worked in Afghanistan and Turkey as a legal consultant for a variety of projects on the rule of law, subnational governance, bank privatization, and commercial law reform. Licensed to practice in the Province of Ontario, Canada, Mike worked as an associate lawyer at a boutique litigation firm in Toronto prior to his return to academia.

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