Law as a tool for development?

kelly_mcmillanBy Kelly McMillan

After finishing an undergraduate degree in international development studies, I was eager for some “real field experience”. Sure, I had participated in a number of valuable development-related internships in Canada, but I wanted a taste of how Development (as industry) operates on the ground. In 2006, I headed to Cameroon to participate in a 10-month internship on housing rights. I touched on a wide range of projects over those months, from trainings on income-generating activities for women, to facilitating the commercialization of local produce, to improving an existing microcredit facility, to organizing workshops on gender-based violence, to offering legal information seminars on housing and family law issues.

It was this last experience that ultimately motivated me to study law. Over the course of that year, I was exposed to a number of consultants in various fields passing through the organization and offering their expertise with concrete, tangible results. I felt my background in IDS was insufficient to allow me to make any really meaningful contribution. In particular, I was frustrated by the small scale of the community-based interventions I was involved in, and was discouraged by the lack of immediate results in some of the more policy-oriented initiatives. I felt that law—and community legal services in particular—would be my own “tool” to use to further women’s rights in the international context.

So, four years later, I was thrilled to have been selected for McGill CHRLP’s internship placement at the Refugee Law Project. I have already worked for two legal clinics in Montreal, and love the satisfaction that comes from solving a real human being’s concrete problem. It was a perfect combination of my IDS background and legal skills.

Perhaps it shouldn’t have come as so much of a shock to me that a few short weeks into my internship, the things that seemed less significant to me in my first overseas experience are the exact ones I find starkly absent in my present placement—namely, small-scale income-generating activities, vocational training programs and microcredit facilities! Not to mention an overarching philosophy of what is trying to be achieved.

On one of my first days, a counsellor at RLP summed up the general feeling of frustration I have since heard echoed by a number of RLP staff: “I refuse to counsel a hungry refugee!”

For someone who had initially been so optimistic about the promise of legal aid in development, this was a disturbing thing to hear. I have been thinking about it more and more: legal aid and psychosocial support is well and good, but is not enough for a person who fails to meet even the basic daily needs of herself and her family. Many refugees wait outside RLP all day without a meal. Many of the children cannot attend school for want of funds for transportation, uniforms and supplies and so instead work as house girls under oftentimes harsh conditions. I have heard the children themselves articulate education as their single biggest priority. As Intake Officer, a majority of my clients’ problems are not really legal, but medical or financial.

Although, admittedly, one organization cannot do everything, perhaps CONGEH did have the right recipe after all: an integrated approach focusing on finding sustainable ways to meet communities’ basic needs first, with some small resources to address individual legal problems in the short-term, but with a greater emphasis on preventing the legal issues from arising through information campaigns. I certainly don’t have an easy answer to this (surely there isn’t one), but now I have an even greater respect for (and am more in tune to) the priorities as identified by refugees, rather than donors.

So while Uganda’s theme for this year’s world refugee day (June 20th) is “Self-Reliance: Life Beyond Relief Aid”, I am perplexed by an almost total lack of services available to Kampala’s refugees to assist them in actually building such a life. For a person who has just lost everything, a start-up loan could go a long way…

One response to “Law as a tool for development?”

  1. Nandini Ramanujam says:

    hello Kelly!

    very insightful post! Ensuring that basic needs are met and people could live with dignity and personal and economic security is a challenge indeed. Your experience with 2 organizations in Africa gives you, and all of us, a lot of food for thought.

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