We must not repeat the mistakes of the past if aid is to be spent effectively on justice systems in developing countries.

There was an article a few days ago in the New York Times called ‘Taliban justice gains favor as official Afghan courts fail’. You don’t have to read more than the title to know what it is about. It gives examples of how individual Afghans find better justice through the harsh but corruption-free Taliban system.

There was a sentence in the article which gave me pause: ‘Countless training programs funded by Western allies for lawyers and judges have become bywords for waste.’ (Well, there are other interesting sentences, too, like: ‘After… more than a billion dollars in development aid to build up Afghanistan’s court system, it stands largely discredited and ridiculed by everyday Afghans. A common refrain, even in Kabul, is that to settle a dispute over your farm in court, you must first sell your chickens, your cows and your wife.’)

Now, I remember when it was the coolest thing on earth to be part of a funded programme bringing Western justice to the newly invaded countries of Iraq and Afghanistan. Funded programmes in the developing world are of themselves cool, whether it is bringing books to Somalia or helping farmers in Cambodia. Many young people long to be part of such work, and numerous respectable organisations vie to attract the money.

The arguments are well-known. Who benefits from this aid; the ideologically ardent people who embellish their CVs and life experiences by giving the aid, or the donors for whom it is ostensibly given? The New York Times article suggests that the money was wasted. Doubtless it was not wasted on those who gave the aid, who are probably rising upwards through the NGO ranks on the back of their experiences.

All this will not surprise many people. And I don’t mean to be cynical. I myself am involved at present in a programme funded by the International Bar Association to assist the Ukraine bar. In order to ensure that future programmes of a similar nature do not waste millions, though, we should all be assisted by reflections on what has worked in the past, and why.

Doubtless there are academics who know the answers at the snap of a finger. But are their conclusions brought to the attention of those who apply for funding, so that applicants can submit sensible programmes? And, more to the point, do funders know what works? Or are we condemned forever to repeat the same mistakes?

The article suggests that corruption in the judiciary and its inability to enforce its own judgments cause the problem in Afghanistan. But if this is still the case after more than a billion dollars (a billion dollars!), what is the point of continuing?

The UK’s own DFID has been a major Afghanistan funder, and says this about justice in the country: ‘Establishing a fully effective justice system in Afghanistan is a long-term task that will require significant investment for many years to come. However, national confidence in the statutory justice system has steadily risen and many now prefer it over the Taliban system.’ (Note that it is many who prefer it over the Taliban system, not most.)

There are other difficult questions. What if ‘what-will-work’ runs counter to our own values of justice – for instance, if it involves the enforcement of a code which does not (by our lights) respect people equally, or where the punishments are by our standards contrary to human rights? Do we still give money, if that is what the local people really want? Good luck to the person who answers that question correctly.

I am among those whose organisations may be applying for funds to improve justice systems in the future. Where do we go for the ‘what-will-work’ suggestions? Past wastage needs to be examined. If it has already been examined, then this should be widely publicised to applicants and funders to ensure a better future.

Of course I want a sparkling CV and stories to impress my children – but I also want our taxes to be rigorously and sensibly applied.

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