Mali Leading

This article was first published in a leading Canadian law magazine, Slaw by Sam Muller

In the Hague Declaration on Access to Justice that was adopted on 7 February this year three things stand out (see my previous column). It recognises the need to make justice systems more people-centred. It calls for a more evidence-based way of working. And, finally, it calls for innovation. The question that nobody has really answered is: how does that work? If you are a minister of justice and you wake up one day thinking “I want to do that Hague Declaration thing”, what comes next? How do you know what ‘people-centred’ is? What does “evidence-based working” mean in the justice sector? And how in heaven’s name does an ‘evidence-base’ turn into ‘innovation’? This is something we urgently need to start talking more about. If not, the Hague Declaration will remain a piece of paper. That would be a great loss for the citizens of the world and the hundreds of millions who lack adequate access to justice. Mali may be able to give some answers.


It is a unique country. Vast and diverse, with amazing musicians and artisans. It’s also the first country in the world that I know of which has commissioned two nation-wide studies into the justice needs of its citizens in four years, in 2014 and in 2018. *I must disclose that both studies were led by HiiL, where I work.

The first part of the answer seems to be: you need data. Not just any data, but data about the needs and experiences of people. What justice problems do they have? What do their journeys to justice look like? Do they get outcomes that work? What are the variations by gender, age group, whether you live in a city or in the countryside, or for the different levels of education? The data must also be able to follow trends. So not a one-off survey. But an ability to track. So you can, for instance,  see whether the resolution rate is going up or down; generally, and per problem. This, in turn, means that you need to do as a minister of justice who wants to Do The Hague Declaration thing, and set up a user-experience data gathering unit.

In Mali, the expertise for this comes from a partnership: a few people from the ministry, the national bureau of statistics, experts from Deme So, a leading access to justice NGO, and international expertise from HiiL. That partnership was has worked together over a year and is funded from a joint fund, managed by the ministry of justice and an international donor (the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs).


Once you have data, need to set priorities. In the justice universe, 4 year election-driven mandates are short. Moreover, data shows that many ministers of justice are rotated out even before the end of the 4-year cycle. Setting strategic priorities is therefore critical. For this, you need more than a minister. The process with which the UN adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals may point to a good practice here. The SDGs were the result of wide a fairly fast consultation process. A dose of pragmatism was also part of the process: they were developed around policy areas where progress was deemed possible. The SDGs have fairly broad defined goals that are further developed in more precise targets, that are in turn strengthened with smart indicators. Borrowing from that practice, the minister of justice who wants to “Do The Hague Declaration Thing” could subsequently set up a broadly composed group of experts who, with some legitimacy, select 5-10 access to justice priorities and fit them with concrete targets. The expert group can come from a wide spectrum: ministry of justice, the courts and prosecution, the bar, parliament, academia, civil society organisations, and business (like for example, representatives for SMEs). I have worked on building such coalitions and have seen it work.


With data about justice needs and trends, a capacity to continue to gather more data, an agenda of 5-10 justice delivery priorities, indicators to know whether there is progress, and an empowered group of stakeholders you have a very solid foundation for innovation. Innovation teams can then start work on developing solutions around the national 5-10 priorities that have been agreed to. Funders  – be they ministries of finance, ministries of development, international development banks, philanthropic institutions, or impact investors – are much more likely to allocate money to clear citizen-centred priorities matched with indicators, an ability to monitor progress, and a group of committed stakeholders.

International sharing

A last component that I am also learning about in Mali is the importance of international sharing. In the past decades, it has become a normal practice in the health sector. I hear a lot – directly from them – a that ministers of justice who want to Do the Hague Declaration thing feel they would be greatly helped if they could periodically meet with colleagues who are doing the same thing. To exchange experiences. To learn. To strengthen each other. Not in a large scale ‘summit’ setting. But in quiet, safe settings, where they can not only talk about success, but also about mistakes, fears, and hopes. This is something the world must learn to fund. It is important.

The Hague Declaration on Access to Justice is a modest but great achievement. Let’s talk more about what is needed to make it work.