Hopping Ministers and Crossing Canyons

At the end of July, after months of lockdown, my first trip outside The Netherlands was to Tunisia. Just before I flew over, the prime minister tendered the resignation of his government. That meant possibly another minister of justice; the fourth in a little over two years. Much as I believe in democracy, it felt a bit much. With a deep sigh I reconciled myself with the fact that we needed to start developing our ministerial relationship all over again. In most post-revolution and post-conflict reconstruction environments frequent changes of ministers of justice and, with that, senior civil servants, are normal.

It is a hot seat to sit on, even in the stablest of countries. Ministers of justice have huge demands made on them: keeping people safe, locking bad people up, not being repressive, being resolute, stopping corruption (even in-house), being loyal to the people that do the work, demanding that they do better, delivering effective access to justice, staying within budget, being the justice conscience of government, being loyal to government, stimulating change and innovation in a conservative sector, and more. All this in a complex political environment and a vocal, wieldy sector. As I write this, 6 weeks later, Tunisia has a new minister of justice: former magistrate Mohamed Boussetta. I can’t wait to meet him.

Our mission was connected to a small justice innovation contribution we are trying to make in Tunisia: the development of an easily accessible tool to help people resolve employment disputes. My agenda included discussions with the UN Development Programme, the ministry of justice, and a few diplomats. We also had the official launch of the HiiL Justice Accelerator for the MENA region.

As we were doing this another one of those seemingly unbridgeable justice sector canyons became visible to me. No, not the one between the formal justice system and most of the users of the system. Not the one between lawyers and judges. Not the one between judges and the ministry of justice. Nor the one between the ministry of justice and the ministry of finance. This was the canyon between the impressive innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem of Tunisia and the formal justice sector.

On one side of the canyon stands the Tunisian justice system with its considerable challenges. Four out of ten Tunisians experienced a serious justice problem in the past four years. Most of them concern basic livelihood: their ability to work, sustain the families, use basic public services or to receive social benefits. The vast majority of legal problems are not resolved. The overall satisfaction with justice journeys is not high. Notably, the users of justice experience the court procedures as costly and stressful. Only around one in five legal problems are perceived as completely or partially resolved. Around 60% of them are ongoing and 15% have lost hope and given up. The internet is hardly used as a public source for legal information and advice, despite the fact that Tunisia has one of the most developed telecom infrastructures and lowest prices in North Africa. In short: like many countries, Tunisia could do with a decisive shift towards people centered justice.

On the other side of the divide stands the impressive Tunisian innovation and start-up scene. The country has a Start-up Act, adopted in 2018 after a unique bottom-up, participatory design process, driven by a group of entrepreneurs, investors, banks and an enlightened minister of technology. The Act is doing its work – Tunisia is becoming a major innovation hub. Start-ups are easy to meet. Major incubators and accelerators have set up shop in Tunis.

You’d think that a connection between the justice sector and the innovation ecosystem would be self evident in a country that is reinventing itself to be the newest democracy of the 21st century. A country that, like others, is facing even larger justice demands from citizens as a result of Covid-19. This is happening as resources to meet those needs are in decline as a result of the economic downturn. We all know: when you need to do more with less, the only way out is innovation. In this case: redesigning procedures to make them user friendly. Making legal information easily accessible for all. Giving people online access to dispute resolution mechanisms. But it is not really happening.

How can the canyon be crossed? It starts with people and relationships. Just like in peace processes, people and institutions from both sides need to meet and start talking. It is scary for many; we have been talking about our relatively small innovation project in Tunisia for almost two years now; people and institutions clearly find it hard to press the ‘go’ button. It is necessary to create safe spaces for both sides of the divide to meet and talk about innovation, ambitions, risks, and what scares people, and dreams. Citizens can, through their elected officials and community organisations also contribute by demanding more that the two worlds connect to provide them with better justice services. Funders can also play a role. A recent report by HiiL on financing justice concludes that “Government and international donors are unlikely to provide extra funding for the justice sector unless the financial models are sustainable, and services become more efficient in delivering outcomes.” They can demand innovation and a connection between the two worlds before they fund something.

The canyon must be crossed. It presents huge potential for Tunisia. It is also probably the only way in which the citizens of Tunisia will get what they need: more prevention of justice problems, higher resolution rates, and more satisfaction about the journeys to justice. There is also a wider agenda: without linking justice and innovation we will not meet SDG16 and the goal of justice for all.

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