A part of your tax that funds the EU’s budget goes towards the improvement of human rights and the rule of law in countries around the world. This makes sense to me, because a stable world enables us to enjoy those things which governments are supposed to provide: an environment for improved trade, easier travel and general peace for EU citizens – never mind the improvements for citizens of the country being assisted. Many people criticise everything the EU does, but I am not one. However, in this respect the organisation of their funding leaves much to be desired, as I will show.

I know that there are arguments as to whether aid is beneficial in the first place. Some people think that aid encourages dependency and stifles initiative, that most of it is misdirected, and that middle-class international development professionals benefit most from it. I can think of one organisation abroad which receives justice assistance from various distinguished bodies, but is still unable to organise the proverbial you-know-what in a brewery for its members.

Nevertheless, I write on the basis of optimism - that such aid can help, if only at the most basic level of maintaining a dialogue between countries, or in our case between lawyers, on important matters. And some of the programmes can be practical and useful, such as (to use US-funded projects from the body cited below) setting up legal aid clinics, assisting law schools in introducing new courses and practical training, and helping bars to develop bar exams or codes of legal ethics.

If we can agree with the optimistic premise, there are good examples of how other governments provide rule of law money (since the EU is not alone in investing in justice outside its borders). The American Bar Association – the US body mentioned above - has an impressive organisation, the Rule of Law Initiative, which has received many millions of dollars from the US government (chiefly USAID) over the years.

Its board is made of the great and good, mostly American but including our own Lord Goldsmith of Iraq invasion fame – and significantly it has an advisory body including no fewer than four justices of the US Supreme Court. It has a staff of over 400, and implements legal reform programmes in more than 40 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. In an admirable twist, it has a pool of short- and long-term volunteers who, since the organisation’s launch, have contributed more than $200m in pro bono technical legal assistance.

For those countries which are sensitive to working with the US, the Canadian government provides a helpful alternative: it similarly funds the Canadian Bar Association through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), and so offers the same kind of programmes in a number of countries.

The US and Canadian examples involve a structure where the money goes through a single source of obvious expertise, enabling planning and assessment to take place on a sensible, year-by-year basis. The bars have access to the full range of their members, knowledgeable in many areas of law, who can also offer assistance on a pro bono basis.

The EU, unfortunately, employs the opposite approach: a scatter-gun. The funding comes from different directorates – Enlargement, Development and Co-operation, External Action Service, for instance – none of them knowledgeable on justice issues (they operate various programmes with different success rates). Some of the money is provided by headquarters in Brussels, the rest dispensed through local EU delegations in particular countries. This means that, to obtain funding, you have to keep your eye on many places. Among the very wide range of successful applicants, consultancies figure highly, helping to run biscuit factories one day and legal aid clinics the next, regardless of expertise. They are good at putting in applications with the required buzzwords, since they depend on it for their survival, and the Commission knows them from previous applications.

This is not wise. It places the EU behind our competitors in promoting European legal values and legal systems to countries around the world. It puts obstacles in the way of building long-term relationships between relevant legal partners. But it continues because the structure and organisation of the Commission is so fixed that there is no way round this multiplicity of funding sources and applicants.

There are solutions: either there should be a single agency (as in the US or Canada) to which external justice funding is provided; or all funding for external justice projects should go through the Commission directorate responsible for justice at EU level, DG Justice. This answer is so simple, but no one in the Commission seems able to implement it. I beg them to put our tax pounds to better use.

Jonathan Goldsmith is secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents about one million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs