Gerard Sanders, deputy general counsel at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) takes up a new role in October as General Counsel of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).  Here he talks about his interest in development and the role law and lawyers play in that process.

Why the interest in development?

Freedom from want and fear, and the ability to live life with dignity are universal aspirations. Legal texts view these as entitlements. Yet so many people, especially in developing countries, don’t enjoy these basic human rights. A particular scourge is hunger. The United Nations estimates that one in eight people go hungry or are malnourished.

It is a cruel irony that of the 1.2 billion people who live in extreme poverty, three-quarters of them live in rural areas where most of the world’s food is produced. However, the spectre of food insecurity haunts rich and poor countries alike. There really is a global village.    

Even where people living outside the rich world can sustain themselves and conflict does not blight lives, countries may need help in holding out the promise of a better life. Here, governments have an important role to play, especially in setting the rules in which wealth-generating markets can flourish. However, the benefits of growth need to be inclusive. Too often young people, women and girls and minority groups remain marginalised. 

Again, rural people often miss out most.

A world impoverished by a denial of rights as basic as having a square meal every day or being able to drink clean water, or where the right to development remains unrealised, diminishes us all. We need to fix it. And we have a better chance now more than ever before to do that.  

It’s good to be part of the effort.

What role does law play in development?

Law gives these aspirations and entitlements expression that is meaningful. It also informs and defines the governance of institutions like the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and International Fund for Agricultural Development that deliver development assistance. 

Operationally, too, law makes a contribution to development. It upholds rights, of the weak against the strong, for the greater good. It provides the legal rules that regulate the economy and govern how societies work for the benefit of all. It supports the institutions which apply and interpret those rules. 

Law also helps inform the legal culture that permeates all of this. For example, the EBRD’s Legal Transition Programme draws on all of these elements in helping build a legal environment supportive of both domestic and cross-border investment.

Which laws are most relevant?

International financial institutions, like EBRD and IFAD, are established by treaty and governed by public international law. That law may also be the governing law for certain kinds of financing agreements, notably those with sovereign borrowers. A sub-set of public international law, namely international administrative law, governs employment contracts in international organisations. 

Domestic laws are also relevant, especially in the field, for example in relation to local security agreements.

What role do lawyers play?

In-house lawyers advise on all aspects of the activities of international financial institutions. This includes legal relations with members and other contributors of funding as well as other lenders and donors. Lawyers help protect the special status, privileges and immunities that such organisations enjoy, vital if contributed funds are to be used for their intended purpose. 

They also deal with many of the issues familiar to in-house lawyers working in a corporate environment, from leases to insurances, although in the field of employment law the institutions operate outside of national courts and are not governed by any national law. 

Lawyers at international financial institutions spend much of their time helping deliver operational objectives. Often they advise on lending, investment and grant financing. They also play a leading role in legal reform efforts.

Is there a call for external legal assistance?

Yes. International financial institutions often make use of the services of outside counsel. Lawyers in the countries where development assistance is targeted are regularly retained, whether to advise on local law issues in relation to international financing agreements, to assist with legal reform projects - for example, drafting a new law enabling farmers seeking loans for investment to offer crops as security - or to advise the institutions on their interaction with local legal systems.

External lawyers may be retained to assist in-house counsel in advising on borrowings and investment as well as a host of institutional and administrative matters. In all cases, selection follows the published procurement rules of the institutions concerned.

How did you become involved in this work?

I’ve long been interested in international law, studying different aspects of the subject at both undergraduate and graduate levels, in my home country of New Zealand and in the US. I’ve worked on cross-border transactions and international law issues while living in some great cities, including London (I requalified as a solicitor here) and, soon, Rome. 

I also teach a little around the subject. Combine that with a passion for international development, and the enjoyment of working in a multicultural setting with committed professionals from many disciplines, then international organisations offer an attractive career option for someone like me. 

Most people who work in the public sector will tell you that the mandate of the organisation is what maintains their interest in working there, whether it’s bolstering democracy and building market economies, like at the EBRD, or investing in rural people, empowering them to reduce poverty, increase food security and strengthen resilience, like at IFAD.

What advice would you give to a law student or recently graduated lawyer wanting to work in international development?

Get a good degree from a good university; the choice of subjects is not so important. Most international organisations place a premium on a postgraduate law degree from a third country. Publish a scholarly article; it doesn’t have to be on development. Relevant language skills are always valued. 

What is critical is obtaining solid legal skills, preferably in a law firm if coming from the UK where research, analytical, drafting and presentational skills can be honed. In-house legal environments are not really set up to provide basic legal training. 

Obtain as much experience as possible working on matters in third jurisdictions, work abroad for several years, hike for three months in Peru. International organisations want lawyers who are comfortable working in unfamiliar territory, both geographically and in the sense that the laws may be rudimentary or unknown or the legal institutions wanting. 

Finally, plenty of lawyers work in an international organisation for a few years and then move on, taking with them new experiences and fresh perspectives that assist them in their new work. They often land up advising the same institutions. However, if you want to make a career as a lawyer in international development, you won’t get rich that way but the rewards of making a small contribution to a worthy and urgent cause are immense.   

The views are those of the author and not those of the EBRD, IFAD or the Law Society.