Beyond Courts: Using a justice lens to address conflict, fragility and violence

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Gaza. Displaced Persons. World Bank
Gaza. Displaced persons. Photo: © Natalia Cieslik / World Bank

From civil wars in Mali and Iraq to urban crime in Central America, perceptions of injustice are central to fueling violence and fragility. While we in the development community increasingly recognize that legitimate and effective justice institutions are crucial to inclusive growth in these contexts, we have often struggled to support them. The World Bank is at the forefront of developing new ways of understanding justice challenges as well as practical means to address them. 

A panel on “New Approaches to Justice in FCV,” part of the 2015 Fragility Forum, highlighted new ways of understanding and responding to justice challenges.

First, a growing consensus is emerging on the need to look beyond the justice sector and its institutions to address justice challenges. 

It is now well recognized that formal justice sector institutions are only one – and often in FCS not the main – means by which citizens seek to resolve disputes. Traditional justice – whether provided by community elders or village chiefs or religious leaders – plays a critical role in peoples’ lives in most developing countries; even more so in conflict affected situations where formal institutions lack access, capacity, and reach to provide such services.

Recent research by the World Bank Group in northern Mali, for instance, showed that better provision of justice would be a critical factor in addressing the underlying drivers of the ongoing conflict. Most respondents expressed a strong preference for traditional authorities over formal state structures when asked who they would approach for dispute resolution, and even expressed great degrees of skepticism towards the formal justice system which was seen as corrupt and biased towards the social norms of the south.

But beyond this, justice is not merely a set of institutions, but a set of principles and approaches  that should infuse our work across sectors to deliver justice and equitable outcomes.  As Jim Yong Kim explained during a 2013 speech at Law, Justice and Development Week, “using a justice lens in development is fundamental to the Bank’s mission of ending extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity.”  

This perspective is especially important in countries affected by fragility, conflict and violence. The 2011 World Development Report pointed to a large body of evidence that singles out perceptions of injustice – related to political exclusion, inequality among identity groups, or insecurity – as motivation for individuals to join radical or violent groups.

The justice issues that drive violence – and that are most important to inclusive development – also vary by context.  Deborah Isser, Senior Governance Specialist at the World Bank, noted during the panel discussion that “justice here is not a philosophical concept but rather an empirical one – what people say are the unresolved grievances that matter most.”  This implies the need to focus on injustice as a starting point, rather than jumping straight into justice sector institutions.   

This understanding of justice has implications beyond justice practitioners to sectoral experts across the Bank. Injustices that fuel fragility can manifest around land, water, extractives, infrastructure and public services. The World Bank is exploring how to integrate justice perspectives in approaching these issues. 

In Liberia since the end of the civil war, roughly 75% of land has been granted to natural resource concessions , giving rise to widespread grievance, disputes and episodic violence. Through a proposed land administration project the Bank is supporting mechanisms to address justice concerns through consent-based land acquisition and conflict management.

Second, we are seeing a growing sophistication in addressing the political economy dimensions of justice in FCV contexts 

Justice institutions – whether in the justice sector or beyond it – are a reflection of broader governance dynamics. Gerald Gahima, a former Deputy Chief Justice and Prosecutor General of Rwanda, explained during the discussion that “we approach justice as a legal question, but it is really a political one – the question is how to get to a political settlement that offers a pathway to change.” Where the underlying political settlement favors exclusion or repression, institutions are difficult to change.  Even where leaders intend to provide credible justice, people within the ruling coalition may weaken institutions to avoid being held accountable. 

Nonetheless, there is hope that even under corrupt or repressive governments, there are people within justice institutions who are committed to working for the good of the people and supporting reforms. Supporting them requires attentiveness to their needs, understanding of the political economy, and the flexibility to try innovative and unorthodox ways to provide assistance.

Development actors are finding new ways to address these challenges. The World Bank is exploring how to incorporate greater flexibility into its programs.  A recent Just Development Note by Lisa Denney and Erika Kirwen pointed to several examples of efforts to conduct more ‘politically smart’ justice programs. The Bank is also working closely with the United Nations to strengthen analysis and planning, in part by conducting earlier analysis to understand the nature of justice problems and the political economy that shapes institutions.

​While promoting justice in FCV contexts remains a challenge, the emerging consensus is leading to new ways to address justice issues through integrated multi-sectoral solutions. 


Hassane Cisse

Director, Governance and Inclusive Institutions, Governance Global Practice

Betty Bigombe

Senior Director, Fragility, Conflict and Violence

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