Kaleidoscope of meaning fragments: understanding the rule of law’s paradoxes in international development
Leach, Michael Charles
Since the mid-1990s, the ‘Rule of Law’ as been recognized as being a dominant conceptual frame for legal and governance reform work in international development. As a concept and a norm, the meaning of the Rule of Law has long been ambiguous and ‘essentially contested’ in legal and political philosophy, but through its promotion in international development project work over the past three decades it has become even more so. The Rule of Law’s manifestation in international development work has been criticized over the years by some scholars for being an ideological handmaiden to neoliberal globalization, or by others for being unrecognizable or disingenuous to its theoretical origins. To those who actually do the work of promoting it, it is meaningful in a variety of very different ways that do not easily fit into such perspectives. For many, it is a paradoxical, strange, and frustrating concept whose reality often makes little sense, and that is somehow ubiquitous and important while also seemingly meaningless and empty. Information and literature about it abound, but little is helpful for those whose job it is to actually promote it anywhere. It is purportedly a universal and transcendent value and concept, yet it is maddeningly elusive and difficult to ‘apply’ anywhere in practice. This thesis takes the Rule of Law’s paradoxical appearance to those who work with it as its entry point to providing an alternative, relational description of what the ‘Rule of Law’ is and means in international development and what work it does as a concept. Using qualitative empirical data from 40 semi-structured interviews with Rule of Law development professionals, it explores the concept’s social reality in development to demonstrate how the institutional structures and procedures of international development policymaking and project work modify and fragment its meaning and meaningfulness within and among organizations and actors at multiple levels in ways that make any comprehensive understanding of it virtually impossible for those who work with it. Furthermore, it scrutinizes how the mechanisms by which knowledge about the Rule of Law is produced by and through international development work reinforces its unknowability by tethering its ambiguous, fragmented meaning(s) to its manifold policy uses in very specific and variable ways that over three decades have created new, fragmented meanings for it.