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The Slow Burn of Justice, the Power of Research

Guest Blog by Adrian Di Giovanni, Senior Program Specialist, Law & Development at International Development Research Centre


The slow burn of justice. In launching the “Resisting Injustice” blog series, Namati has evoked the powerful image of the arc of history bending towards justice and, in the process, a long history of calls to justice by such inspirational Americans as Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Parker. On questions of justice, I often turn to another well-worn image: the flame.

The flame of justice burns in all of us, across communities and generations. It is our shared dignity as well as our responsibility to nurture it so that it doesn’t go out or burn out of control – the proverbial forest fire – in such a way that one person’s or group’s pursuit of justice comes at the exclusion of others.

Across the world, the space for respectful debate and disagreement is rapidly shrinking. In some countries, populist movements have used a discourse of suspicion and intolerance to target disadvantaged groups, like refugees and migrants, while other countries have seen outright attacks on freedom of expression. Are the fires of justice growing too weak or raging out of control? It is not an easy question to answer in one go.

Like many, I was inspired and relieved a couple of months ago to see lawyers in major airports across the US come to the assistance of foreign nationals facing a government order that challenged many shared notions of justice. In that moment, we saw the power of the law to resist injustice in a moment of crisis (which also, as Irene Khan the Secretary-General of IDLO recently remarked, made lawyers “cool” again). It was a spark of justice that ignited the imagination of people across many boundaries. And we see those sparks in different legal empowerment efforts in countries around the world. This example of a community in Duah, Liberia confronting a village leader on a crony land deal is one of many that jump to mind.

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Next to such moments, research or evidence-building – the main tools my colleagues at Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and I support in promoting justice globally – might appear somewhat unglamorous. Yet while the “sparks” are instrumental to lighting new flames, or reviving smothered ones, they are not enough to sustain the flame of justice. Ensuring respect for justice and the most basic of rights is a long-term and incremental struggle, requiring concerted efforts by many actors and, often, entailing big shifts in how groups, communities, and societies organize and see themselves. It is a slow burn. Here is where we see the power of research: building better knowledge on how people confront and can overcome justice challenges is a crucial element in sustaining that flame. Without it, we risk fumbling in the dark or trying to torch competing views through force of conviction alone.

A spark leads to a flame, many flames. The attack on critical thought and established truth, which has defined various populist movements, has challenged some of the work I support in a new, even existential, way. In the face of such threats, what role can research play in overcoming justice and larger social problems?

As a starting point, I would venture that current threats to evidence and ‘truth’ do not diminish but in fact reaffirm their importance. Research, when done well, reflects many of the basic notions of justice that we now see under threat. The search for greater knowledge conditions us not to take our own views and experiences as a given but to test our assumptions.

Much of the justice-oriented research my colleagues and I support aims to help populations gain a deeper understanding of their justice challenges (through various participatory and action-oriented processes) and, in turn, how they can be empowered to claim their rights and seek better opportunities. We believe that the actors living closest to a set of challenges are the one best placed to understand them and identify solutions that will bring about lasting change. When given a chance to weigh in on basic questions of justice, people become engaged. Often they express a desire for greater awareness: to understand better the various processes, policies or challenges affecting them. And with a deeper sense of the issues at stake generally comes a desire to know how to meaningfully come together so that their voices are heard. Justice, the flame, burns at a deeply personal level, across countries and socio-economic groups.

In successful, inspiring instances, research efforts can spark collective action, as people take steps together to assert their rights and light the path for large-scale change. In Nairobi, Kenya, IDRC research partners developed deeper evidence on life in Mukuru, an informal settlement of around 100,000 households. The research team, led by Akiba Mashinani Trust, then shared findings on sanitation conditions with participating women community leaders. At the same time, the team provided information about how those conditions did not meet with their constitutional rights.

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With this new awareness, the women organized a petition, then took to the streets to claim their rights to sanitation. Those and other advocacy efforts caught the attention of public officials, which provided an opening for the partners to engage in a larger process of dialogue. The team’s deeper set of findings, along with a corresponding series of tailored solutions, convinced officials that change in an otherwise forgotten part of the city was not just urgent but possible. The team and city government are now working together, along with residents, to start redeveloping the settlement.

Populist forest fires? What has been most troubling about the populist waves in recent years is how they demonstrate the negative power of collective action. While it might be tempting to dismiss many of those movements as ill-informed or misguided, they have in many cases been framed using a language of injustice, such as a (perceived) lack of economic opportunity or a disconnect from political leaders and processes. In seeing injustice in their own struggles, however, these movements have failed to recognize the injustice they have inflicted on others in the process.

At IDRC, we see the power of building new evidence in helping to break down what are seen as insurmountable challenges or in injecting a common ground for dialogue on divisive or ‘no go’ issues. Now more than ever, we need to hold true to the important commitment of meeting people where they are, of humanizing issues and building mutual understanding by ‘talking with people in real life‘. That reflex to seek understanding is central to the critical engagement and curiosity that define research and justice. The challenges posed by recent populist waves help us to reframe basic long-standing research questions with a new urgency, such as:

These are core questions that, along with dedicated actors across the Global South, my colleagues and I will be addressing in IDRC’s Governance & Justice group in the coming years. We invite others to join us, in the shared commitment and resolve, to nurture this slow – yet urgent – burn.

June 5, 2017 | Adrian Di Giovanni, IDRC

Region: > Global