Speak to the Street

I was walking down the street with Nelson, one of the regional finalists of our 2018 Innovating Justice Award. He’s co-founder of Gavel (and, more visible: @citizen_gavel on Twitter). A social enterprise that calls itself “a civic tech organisation aimed at improving the pace of justice delivery through tech”. As part of the entrepreneurship training we give the finalists we ask the justice entrepreneurs to speak to the street. Find and talk to justice customers. Learn what they need. How they need it. When they need it. What they do when they need it. This was a busy street in Lagos. We met Frank. Or actually, he met us.

“Can ask what you are doing?”, he asked.

“We are doing research about justice” replied Nelson, “Can we ask you some questions?”

“Of course you can.” Frank was eager.

“Have you ever faced police brutality?”

“Oh yes!”, he shot back.

“It was connected to a family member…”. He talked so fast I could barely follow. He had stood up to the police over a minor occurrence involving his car. They had come to his house. Arrested two family members – including young boy. Frank was well embedded in his community so the neighbours had come to the kafuffle. The matter had been settled by an implicit agreement not to settle. The police withdrew and let the family members go. It was clear to Frank that that’s where he should leave it. He’d wanted to report it higher up but he did not think that would be a good idea.

“I want to be proud of my country!” he said at the end, visibly emotional. “I want to feel safe and have justice!” There is no justice here. We are not safe. If I could leave I would leave. For my children. Nobody cares about us. I see the police do this all the time. They wait for a small traffic thing. Something that is nothing. Then they grab you.“

“Would you be interested in an App that would allow you to quickly report these types things?” asked Nelson.

“YESSSS!”, Frank responded, his eyes opening wide. “Give it to me now and I will immediately give it to all my family members and friends!”

We thanked Frank and walked on. Our next interviewee was a second hand TV seller in a small pavement shop that only had a roof.

“Police? Oh yes..”, he replied. “I sold a TV to a policeman. After 2 months he came back and said it was broken. We had agreed on a 2-week warranty. He wanted me to fix it. I said he would have to pay for it. He threatened me. He wanted to arrest me. Take me to jail for all kinds of reasons. He threatened to take another TV. I went to the police station. But I got nowhere. There is no point going to a lawyer. I can’t afford that. I also see them there…” he pointed to the corner of the street, “Every morning. They stop cars. These people need to pay 3000 niarra. Every morning.”

John also had great interest in the App.

It is incredibly important that a justice entrepreneur constantly tests his/her belief in the problem he/she is trying to solve and the way in which he/she proposes to do this. It may seem obvious. But there are many reasons not to. It costs time. Effort. Money. It is very scary. But the biggest challenge is the White Knight Syndrome, as I call it. The trap of the passion you have for your cause. I first came across it as a UN staff member, working with refugees in the Middle East and later on war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. We were doing good. Fighting for a true and worthy cause. That meant we were right, at least most of the time. If an annoying question came to us, our basic feeling was “Hey! Be constructive. Stop obstructing our hugely important work. Should we not be handing out food to refugees or go after war criminals?“ If I look back, it narrowed our focus to truly being open to asking the right questions and criticism. And that made our product less good than it might have been.

Nelson is a remarkable lawyer, fully committed to helping deliver better justice. Passionate about dealing with police brutality, especially against young people. Dedicated to developing something that has a sustainable funding model. Talking to the streets of Lagos for one hour gave him a lot of valuable insights and leads to follow. Policy brutality also involves petty traffic fines. That’s a pretty big market. Frank would give the app to all his friends and family. Can the Franks of Nigeria be a good marketing tool and distribution channel? Speak to the streets. Lawyers, judges and civil servants of ministries of justice should start doing that.

This article is originally published on Slaw.com.