Why Development?

When asked what drew my interest to large-scale human rights violations and international criminal law as an undergraduate, I sometimes explain my rationale with a question of my own: What could be more compelling than genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity?

“The silent suffering of the world’s poor,” a development economist might answer. Considering the scale of global (and U.S.) poverty and its pernicious effects throughout a person’s lifetime, it’s a fair point. The apparent inadvertence of poverty is no less alarming than the intentionality of grave human rights abuses, and my interest today is in understanding the root causes of both. Let me explain why I can no longer think about justice without development.

From June to August 2009 I lived in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where I conducted my senior thesis research on the operation and effects of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The Court was established in 2002 to try major perpetrators from the country’s eleven-year civil war. My experience was incredibly rewarding, both because of the freedom I had to design my own project and because of the openness with which Sierra Leoneans I interviewed spoke about their country and the possibilities of justice.

Courthouse of the Special Court for Sierra Leone in Freetown.

Yet for all its cost — about $30 million annually — critics allege the Special Court has not substantially improved the lives of Sierra Leoneans. Could the money not have been better spent on reparations, road construction, public health, or job creation? I tend to think the trade-off is not so clear cut, that financing of the Court has in fact come alongside substantial investment in economic development. Even so, the Sierra Leone I saw was failing to serve its people in many ways:

  • education — If you can afford it. Even though primary school is in theory free for all, the prohibitive costs of required books and supplies keep kids out of the classroom. College, unsurprisingly, is near impossible for most to afford without a generous relative or scholarship.
  • health — If you can afford it. There are very few hospitals, virtually no doctors or dentists, and plenty of malnourished or sick people.
  • electricity — If you can afford it. Even in the capital (Freetown), electricity from the National Power Authority never made it to my neighborhood more than fifteen hours a the week. The rest of the country is off the grid and relies on generators or goes without.
  • work — If you can find it. Stable employment is in short supply, leading many in Freetown to take up petty trading. Children are too often kept out of school to sell produce in the market or even to mine diamonds in some parts of the country.
  • transportation — If you have a reason and can afford it. Reconstruction of roads destroyed in the conflict continues slowly, and when I traveled to Kono district in the extreme east of the country, our driver usually drove half off the road and often on the wrong side to avoid potholes.
Children demand money for filling potholes.

Without justice and the rule of law, of course, there is little certainty that investments in each of these categories will not be undone. Ultimately we shouldn’t have to decide which set of problems is more compelling because development and human rights are mutually reinforcing.

Indeed, for a society to guarantee the most basic rights to housing or food or health care, a certain degree of development is needed. A wholesale commitment to human rights, in turn, requires a fair and open economic system and investments in vital public goods. Although the two have separate traditions and practitioners, they share a central concern with human well-being. That’s why my past research in human rights feels deeply connected to my work in development today.