Politics of Poverty

If the police and judiciary fail you, what do you do?

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Extensive bureaucratic red tape coupled with transportation and legal costs, lawyer fees, and opportunity costs of foregone work make the justice system not only physically but also financially unavailable to many in Liberia. Thomas Tweh, a community leader in the West Point neighborhood of Monrovia, Liberia, is using an innovative approach to resolving these justice issues at the local level. Photo: Morgana Wingard / Accountability Lab

In Liberia, citizens use community mediators to resolve their own disputes. Effective, demand-driven solutions work because they’re tailored to local circumstances.

Written by Blair Glencorse, founder and director of Accountability Lab.*

Over 75,000 people are crammed into this one square mile patch of land near the Atlantic Ocean. In the West Point neighborhood of Monrovia, Liberia’s capital city, many people struggle to survive in such a bustling, though poor and densely-populated area.

As one can imagine, disputes, disagreements and crime are rampant in West Point. There is just one court house and small police station for the entire population. Even more notably, the police and judiciary were recently ranked by the government itself as the most corrupt institutions in the country, according to Transparency International. As a result, and as one resident told us recently,

“There is no justice for the poor.”

Enter Thomas Tweh, a local community leader who trains volunteer mediators to serve on Community Justice Teams that resolve disputes by building trust and understanding among the parties.

The entire community is made aware of this free service through the deployment of a town crier, who makes the rounds in the community every day to remind people to use the mediation service. The Community Justice Teams also collaborate with the local court and police to refer cases back to the community, reducing the burden on the formal system, but even more importantly saving citizens time and money better used to earn a living.

The results have been impressive. So far, the Community Justice Teams have resolved almost 80 cases without any recidivism. This has saved the parties involved almost 500,000 Liberian dollars in fees (and the bribes to make them work) and approximately 350 days of time. This all for an investment of just US$3,000 by Accountability Lab, which helped sponsor the bottom-up design process that gave rise to the program.

I am deeply happy for what these people did for me. Had they not been there I would be in jail,” says Tamba Cooper, a petty trader living in West Point. “I want this initiative to be extended in other communities so people like me can benefit.”

Now that the approach is catching on, the Community Justice Teams are working with the Government of Liberia’s Ministry of Interior to scale up the project to other high-density, low-income neighborhoods of Monrovia, such as Logan Town and Peace Island. The team in Liberia is also looking at other innovative ways to support the roll out of the program and ensure its sustainability over time, including a pilot micro-giving campaign via Twitter.

The question for supporters of global development: How can a donor like the US government effectively support this kind of smart, citizen-driven innovation that leads to governance reform?

*You can learn more about Accountability Lab’s approaches to building integrity in the developing world via their YouTube channel, Facebook page, and Twitter.

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