The Rule of Law and Sustainable Development

The rule of law is widely recognized as an essential component of good governance and sustainable development. But it is a complex idea and difficult to define. This report reviews how trends in development policy and practice have influenced international support for the rule of law, examines reasons for dissatisfaction with the results, and offers ideas on what can be done to enhance the contribution of the rule of law to sustainable development, an environment of peace and stability, and the protection of human rights, well-being, and dignity.

The report describes the inherent difficulty of advancing the rule of law in an increasingly hostile global environment for democratic governance. It recounts how international programs have not consistently embraced lessons learned about achieving societal change. Excessive concentration on technical support for formal justice institutions has erroneously assumed that improved technical capacity will foster political commitment to needed reforms. History has shown the limitations of assistance, by itself, to enable reformers to overcome resistance from politically and economically powerful forces.

The report then proposes ways to improve the effectiveness of foreign assistance and to embed that assistance in a broad framework of cooperation beyond the limitations of donor-recipient relationships. It endorses the approach adopted in the Global Fragility Act of 2019—coordinated implementation of international support through long-term strategies, respect for local ownership, and thoughtful management by multiple agencies of shared understandings that bring together a range of instruments of influence, encouragement, and support. This approach recognizes the essentially political character of the development process and the influence of power relationships within complex political and social systems. Based on this approach, the report recommends that the United States include a coordinated effort to advance the rule of law as an integral aspect of its relations with developing countries.

This report is made possible by general support to CSIS. No direct sponsorship contributed to this report.

James Michel
Senior Adviser (Non-resident), Project on Prosperity and Development