a[![Ninja Law Firm via SolYoung @ flickr]] Ninja Law Firm via SolYoung @ flickr
I read an interesting article yesterday from a man who I referenced in my previous post as one of my favorite development bloggers: Owen Barder. Owen has joined a DC based development think-tank called Center for Global Development and in his [good-bye to Ethiopia post] he had an interesting thing to say about aid. He claims, and I heartily support, that development is much broader than simply aid, it is about trade policy, climate policy, monetary policy (which he didn’t actually mention), and numerous other policies which the developed world implements and in the globalized economy has massive effects in the developing world.
The article returned my thoughts to something which I have pondered off and on for the eight months since we have opened the doors on Watershed Legal Services, my small law firm in this corner of the Horn of Africa.
There are an assortment of varied and divergently relevant reasons why I invested my time and money in this entity. It is a hodge-podge, a kaleidoscope which changes its predominant colors over time. For one, I wanted to get off the NGO train, to stop skimming the surface of places and to dig into a country. To plant roots. For another, my marriage wasn’t going to thrive in an environment where we were constantly moving as my wife is also a professional and the chances of two professionals finding professionally satisfying positions in a new country every two or three years was daunting at best. And I simply fell in love with Somalis and Somaliland – despite (or perhaps because of) its craziness, its madness.
Those are mainly all personal reasons, but there were also some professional reasons which I have considered at length. Rightly or wrongly I was tired of a culture of giving. Now that is not to say that I have stopped giving, indeed I cannot count the number of pro bono hours that our small firm has performed in our short life. I am not tired of giving, I am tired of the expectation that I am here to give – full stop. I am tired of a culture where nothing will happen without a body with money external to the state saying yes we will fund that. These are backwards to how I see the world. I have no problems with giving a man a fish. But when there are so many fish givers in a place that the giving of a fish becomes an expectation then I think we have reached a point where things should be reevaluated. It isn’t development, it isn’t sustainable, and something has to give. This is why I was excited to start a for-profit law firm, this is why we don’t chase projects in the same way that NGOs do, this is why we haven’t taken outside funding from foundations or other organizations who have shown willingness to assist organizations such as Watershed.
Law is not something that can be given. It is, at its core, a conversation between power centers. This conversation ebbs and flows over time. It changes and must change in order to have life and to enable its success. While it is a conversation which can often be informed by actors abroad, if it is not a conversation within the society in which it is being imposed, it will never be successful.
Let me put some meat on that paragraph. What I see from the other side of the table now that I have switched from a legal reform NGO to a practitioner within the country is a tangled mess of laws which will never be implemented here. I see laws built by consultants from other countries who have never bothered to learn the legal structures of this country and bring their own governance proclivities with them. The simple fact of a Kenyan consultant coming to Somaliland to write a law brings big troubles because until recently Kenya was a fundamentally British parliamentary system. Those types of governments operate in a fundamentally different way than governments on a different part of the spectrum. Somaliland, in contradistinction, is built upon an American model. You cannot simply take ideas of how the conversations between power centers works in one system and transplant them whole sale into a different system. Yes, there are often analogies, but not always. American notions of the separation of power and the reasons that America has been able to make an independent executive work requires a method of thought which differs in so many ways. It is like comparing how you talk to your close friends over a cup of coffee sitting on their couch to how you would talk to a new business associate. You talk fundamentally different because the social modes which develop around each of those situations is vastly different. The same is true about law.
So really it boils down to the fact that I wanted to help Somaliland develop its own way of conversing. I want to stop consultants coming from other countries dropping off finished laws and running away. I want to assist parliament and the government to learn how to converse with each other in a legal sense. I want to give young, sharp lawyers a chance to move beyond a simple contract for an NGO where they will never be pushed where they will stagnate and never have the chance to have the feeling of a bit of hard work pushed out the door and the ultimate relaxation and joy which follows.
That, my friends, is why I do what I do. That, my friends, is why I’m more professionally satisfied in these recent months than I’ve ever been in my life.
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