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Learning from previous research: the quest for a better future of dignity and equal opportunities

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Washington, DC. USA, 4th October, 1994 President Nelson Mandela of South Africa delivers his speech during arrival ceremonies on the South Lawn at the White House. Washington, DC. USA, 4th October, 1994 President Nelson Mandela of South Africa delivers his speech during arrival ceremonies on the South Lawn at the White House.

This blog entry is part of a series that highlights insights from research for development policies and practices, supported by the Knowledge for Change Program (KCP).

July 18 is the Nelson Mandela Day, which celebrates  Mandela’s deep commitment to promoting justice, human rights, and fundamental freedom. Today, we highlight a few pieces of research that examine ways to build an inclusive society through the lens of social identities. Identities derived from caste, religion, gender, ethnic background, and social orientations may considerably affect one’s ability to realize one’s full potential. Due to prejudices, historical legacies, and discriminatory cultural norms, certain groups of people are systemically marginalized and discouraged from fully participating in or contributing to a society. And those who bear the tag of minority populations because of ethnic, religious or sexual orientations often face the most discrimination. A World Bank study on the cost of excluding minorities in Eastern Europe showed the annual productivity losses resulting from Roma exclusion in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Romania, and Serbia range from €230 million to €900 million.

Just dismantling discriminative laws does not end social exclusion immediately. People’s perceptions of race, religion, and gender, which may be influenced by history or past institutions, also shape social exclusion. For example, a study measured how caste-based identities impacted people’s performance in India after the constitutional abolition of caste-based discrimination and commitment to equality. In a field experiment, the researchers assessed children’s intellectual performance when making caste identity public. When caste was hidden, low-caste boys solved mazes just as well as high-caste boys. However, publicly revealing caste identity in mixed-caste groups created a significant gap in total mazes solved that and the results favored the high castes. This finding may suggest that an uneasy tension exists in young people’s minds in India: a traditional worldview that presumes caste is destiny and a modern one that calls for each person to shape their own destiny.

Are people from different caste and religious backgrounds fairly represented in the court? Are people from the same religious background more likely to pair up as petitioners and lawyers? And how are discriminatory laws affecting minority populations’ access to formal institutions, education, the labor market, property, public services, and social safety nets? We will provide two deep dives on these topics.

1. Representation and identity in the justice system: effects of caste, religion and gender

In some parts of the world, rigid social divisions, along the lines of castes, religion, and gender, have been a major impediment to welfare improvement. This has been the case for Bihar, India, which has been one of India’s poorest and most divided states. For much of its recent history, upper caste groups continue to have greater economic and social opportunities than lower castes; divisions between Hindus and Muslims are heavily influenced by colonial history; and Bihar also has one of the highest levels of gender inequality in India. Against this social context, an ongoing KCP project explores how these identity-driven social divides may have affected the functioning of judiciary systems, and how social movements are transforming social stratifications in Bihar. Similar studies are underway in Chile, Croatia and Peru.

The research first revealed that Muslims, women, and lower caste groups were consistently underrepresented among lawyers, judges, and petitioners, even in comparison to other state institutions in Bihar. The result stems from the analysis of more than one million cases filed at the High Court of Bihar between 2009 and 2019. Of the 84 judges observed over the 11-year period, there were no judges coming from the lower caste, and very few judges were from minority communities. For this exercise, researchers studied last names in the courts to infer caste status of petitioners, lawyers, and judges. The identity assignment exercise revealed that specific last names clustered together in the courts. Notably, there were clearly some specific judges and lawyers who appeared together quite frequently. There are of course, other factors that drive the co-occurrence of certain judges and lawyers, but social identities do play a role in the process. 

Second, the matching patterns of petitioners, judges and lawyers may also provide additional insights on the relationship networks based on caste, religion, and gender in the court process. The researchers tested if these three relationships, petitioners—judges, lawyers—judges, and petitioners—lawyers, were randomly matched. Legally speaking, a petitioner cannot select a judge or influence the court to be heard by a specific judge. In the same manner, lawyers and judges should not be associated with any social identity. But a petitioner should be able to freely choose their lawyers. Based on these legal foundations, we could assume to find a strong matching tendency only in the petitioners-lawyers relationship, and random assignments in the petitioners-judges and lawyers-judges pairs. The empirical evidence confirmed the assumption. That is, judges are assigned independently from social identities, which means that an influential petitioner, with high social status for example, shouldn’t be able to choose to make their case in front of a  specific judge from the same social group or pressure for preferential treatments.  For the petitioners-lawyers duo, researchers found that petitioners with Muslim last names were more likely to be represented by a lawyer with a similar name to file the cases.

Finally, data showed that the use of caste-neutral names was rising throughout the study period, as the practice of caste-neutral last names was adopted to reduce the salience of caste in formal institutions in Bihar. Almost half of the petitioners had caste-neutral last names. Moreover, caste-neutral last names were clustered together as petitioners and lawyers, suggesting that caste-neutral names are now a new form of stratification in their own right. This finding supports the argument that social movements are known to disrupt existing social orders (in this case, caste networks) but they could also inadvertently create new social categories that may perform a similar role.

2. New database on antidiscrimination laws related to ethnic, religious and sexual minorities

Despite growing interest in studying social justice and discrimination against minorities around the world, comprehensive datasets on antidiscrimination laws and regulations are still limited. Developing a new database in this area is crucial to facilitate more research and inform policies on discriminative laws and marginalized groups. One KCP project (completed in 2017) developed the first internationally comparable indicators to measure discriminatory laws and regulations on the basis of ethnic, religious, and sexual groups. Six indicators were defined to measure discriminatory legislation: (a) access to institutions, (b) access to education, (c) access to the labor market, (d) access to property, (e) access to public services and social protection, and (f) protection from hate crimes and hate speech. And a pilot study was conducted in Bulgaria, Mexico, Morocco, the Netherlands, Tanzania, and Vietnam.

The dataset showed that to various degrees, minorities in all six pilot countries were discriminated against in accessing institutions, education, the labor market, property, public services and social safety nets. Members of minorities in these countries were also victims of hate crimes and the targets of hate speech due to their ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and their identity. All six countries have some laws addressing discrimination against minorities, including nondiscrimination legislation regarding access to the labor market. But many gaps remain in access to property, public goods and social services. The study also found that of the three minority types—ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities—the least protected under the law were sexual minorities. Although data from only six countries cannot provide statistically significant evidence, the pilot study’s findings emphasize the need for further research to encourage a wider debate on the consequences of systematic discrimination against minorities and to help governments critically review their legal frameworks.

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The authors would like to acknowledge contributions from the following projects under the guidance of task team leads (TTLs) and researchers: Equality of Opportunity in Global Prosperity (TTL: Tazeen Hasan); The Impact of Justice Innovations on Poverty, Growth and Development (TTL: Vincenzo Di Maro) and a study on India “Who is in justice? Caste, religion and gender in the courts of Bihar over a decade” (Sandeep Bhupatiraju, Daniel L. Chen, Shareen Joshi and Peter Neis) ; and “Making up people—The effect of identity on performance in a modernizing society” (Karla Hoff and Priyanka Pandey).

About the blog series: The Knowledge for Change Program (KCP) has launched a blog series to retrospectively highlight a selection of research projects conducted over the past 20 years, many of which still remain highly relevant and offer great lessons for development policies and practices today. Managed by the Development Economics Vice Presidency of the World Bank (DEC), the KCP promotes evidence-based policy making through research, data and analytics. To celebrate the KCP’s fourth phase launched in November 2020, this blog series will look into the wealth of knowledge researchers have generated in KCP’s previous phases, distill lessons learned, and inspire discussions on future research directions.


Kerina Wang

Senior Program Officer, Development Economics and Chief Economist

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