The World Bank has faced a number of challenges in its support for justice sector reform. Justice sector investment projects tend to be difficult and slow-moving. They often aim to achieve complex institutional development goals. They seek to build technical capacity, change organizational and individual roles and responsibilities, and solicit stakeholder buy-in and behavioral change.

Along with the complex set of goals, there is an equally complex range of stakeholders that create an additional set of challenges. The justice sector spans the executive and judicial branches of government and interacts closely with the legislative branch, and tensions between independence and accountability manifest themselves at both the policy and technical levels. Importantly, external actors also have significant roles to play in the justice system: members of the legal profession (outside of government) provide services that are integral to the justice system; and  justice (or the rule of law) as an outcome greatly depends on the actions of private citizens and companies, including their awareness of and attitudes to the laws and legal institutions.

With this complex challenge in mind, the Independent Evaluation Group (IEG), jointly with  World Bank staff, distilled lessons from various IEG evaluations of World Bank activities in the justice sector between 2005 and 2020. The portfolio review identified 48 projects in 35 countries including 25 development policy loans with prior actions related to justice sector reform, and 23 investment projects with justice sector reform objectives. The overall outcome of over two thirds  of these projects was rated Satisfactory or Moderately Satisfactory, lower than the Bank average  -  but comparable or better than the governance projects overall for the same period.

Outcome ratings for World Bank Investment Projects (19 projects) for Justice Sector Reform, 2005-2020


The lessons distilled can be divided into two interrelated groups.

  1. Justice reform can be critical to the effectiveness of Bank support for sectors well beyond the justice sector. Neglect of justice reform can limit the Bank’s impact in other areas. For example, the 2022 Country Program Evaluation for Ukraine found that greater World Bank attention was needed to the justice sector, given its importance to the efficacy of reforms in other sectors. Entrenched interests often used the justice system to neutralize the impact of reforms, thereby undermining the broader reform effort. Lack of attention to the justice sector adversely affected the effectiveness of anticorruption reforms and reforms in the energy and financial sectors. In anticipation of significant postwar engagement in Ukraine, IEG has advised the Bank to invest early in deepening its understanding of the links between weaknesses in the justice system and progress on higher level development objectives.
  2. Investment in physical infrastructure and ICT needs to be balanced with support for overall justice policy reform. The Bank should balance its support to physical infrastructure in the justice sector with support to the “soft aspects” of reform, including through capacity building within the sector (with the involvement of private sector actors and civil society). This lesson emerged from the 2008 Country Program Evaluation for Georgia that argued  that Bank assistance was generally more effective in delivering planned outputs (e.g., rehabilitating court buildings, delivering and installing equipment, providing training), but did not achieve its ultimate goal of improving the independence and professionalism of the judiciary, raising ethical standards, and increasing trust in the system. State-of-the-art court facilities, financed by the Bank, neither improved the judiciary’s independence nor elevated its standing with the general public. The CPE stressed that judicial independence was first and foremost a political issue that needed to be addressed by political means.
  3. The Bank should consider political economy implications given the cross-cutting nature of justice reform and engage early with a broad range of government and non-government stakeholders. Many of the lessons that IEG has drawn from the Bank’s experience with justice reform are related to political economy. The success of justice sector reform depends on the actions of all branches of government as well as non-government actors, with many players having the ability to block reform. Therefore, it is important to carefully identify the main stakeholders, understand their motivations and engage with them early.

Several lessons call for: building coalitions in support of reform; engaging with civil society; engaging government actors outside the judiciary, particularly those who oversee the regulatory environment; being cognizant of political cycles; and anticipating windows of opportunity resulting from exogenous political developments such as European Union accession. Experience with the Azerbaijan Judicial Modernization Project suggested that for justice sector reform, increasing public sector capacity needs to be accompanied by efforts to increase demand for reform through greater citizen engagement and citizen information.

Much remains to be learned on how to achieve successful justice sector reform. Although the evidence base is relatively thin and very few country strategy documents emphasized justice sector reform, what is clear is that failure to address problems in the justice sector can seriously undermine the impact of development efforts in many other areas. 


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