Working Paper 93

Governance and Legal Reform in The Gambia and Beyond: an anthropological critique of current development strategies

Mark Davidheiser

Department ‘Integration and Conflict’

Year of publication

Number of pages

Working Paper 93

Using The Gambia as a case study, this paper suggests how the current development strategy of legal reform can be made more sustainable by drawing upon local institutions and exploring alternative dispute processing modalities. There have been innumerable projects aimed at advancing socio-political and economic development in Africa, yet the results have been disappointing. This lackluster record is largely due to the top-down imposition of Western models. At present, decentralization and legal reform have emerged as major donor priorities. Unfortunately, most programs have not lived up to expectations, often because they did not resonate with target populations. The Gambian case illuminates flaws in current development approaches. Gambian legal reform plans are integrated with the decentralization effort and are based on the notion of modernizing and extending the court system. However, most rural Gambians find court adjudication to be counterproductive or ineffective in meeting their needs. In addition, international support for extending the rule of law allows the weak Gambian state to strengthen their control over the national periphery, in direct contrast to the stated aims of administrative devolution. The Gambian and comparative data suggest that a more fruitful strategy would move beyond simply reinforcing a Western style court system. The mobilizational potential of indigenous institutions can be used to provide arenas in which values, expectations, and local policies can be debated. To enable a robust devolution of power and enhance popular participation in development and governance, it may be best to support the establishment of dispute processing fora that can also be used for policymaking and implementation.

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