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The power of literacy to further the rule of law

For 10 years, Books For Africa and Thomson Reuters have partnered to sow the seeds of democracy and justice.

Somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean, a shipping container full of books is currently making its way to a port of call in Africa, where it will be ushered through customs, and unloaded into waiting trucks. The books, thousands of them, will be distributed to children and adults across the continent, many of whom have no access whatsoever to technology. Books are the only way these people can read and learn — the only way, really, they can participate in the modern world.

Over the past 30 years, the organization making these donations possible, Books For Africa, has delivered more than 41 million books to classrooms and libraries throughout the continent. Children aren’t the only beneficiaries, either. Among the many books that Books For Africa has delivered over the years are thousands of legal textbooks, donated to law schools, courts, bar associations, and other legal organizations in desperate need of up-to-date resource materials. In Africa, many jurisdictions have to make do with worn copies of old, out-of-date legal texts, or no texts at all. And in some law schools, 10 or 20 students must often share a single book.

“Maintaining the rule of law in Africa is a constant challenge,” says Sharon Sayles-Belton, Thomson Reuters VP of Government Affairs and Community Relations. “In many places, it’s a question of whether decisions are going to be made in a court of law or at the point of a gun.”

The Jack Mason Law & Democracy Initiative

Indeed, the scarcity of law books in Africa is a matter of such civic urgency that Books For Africa partnered with Thomson Reuters 10 years ago to create the Jack Mason Law & Democracy Initiative, a program dedicated specifically to providing legal textbooks to law-school libraries, social-justice organizations, and other legal-aid agencies in Africa. Former United Nations Chief Kofi Annan and former U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale co-chaired the new venture to get it off the ground. And through this program, Thomson Reuters now donates up to 10 complete law libraries each year to support legal professionals in Africa who are otherwise operating without the benefit of adequate research materials.

The larger purpose of this effort isn’t just to provide books, however — it is to help sustain and develop civil societies based on the rule of law, judicial fairness, and trust in government institutions. Without access to the fundamental texts upon which the rule of law is based, it’s difficult for lawyers and judges to create and enforce legally binding arguments, which can undermine market growth and economic prosperity. It’s also much easier for criminals to go free.

The Jack Mason Law & Democracy Initiative is part of an ongoing effort to help build the legal framework necessary for democratic stability and improved social outcomes, as well as to provide legal professionals with the intellectual tools they need to combat such widespread problems in Africa as human trafficking, corruption, wildlife crime, human-rights violations, and terrorism.

Lane Ayres, director of the Law & Democracy Initiative, remembers the situation before Thomson Reuters got involved. “At the time, we were sending used law books that had been donated. More than three-quarters of them were of little or no use in an Africa legal setting, though, so we had to throw them in the recycling bin,” Ayres says. “Our partnership with Thomson Reuters has made it possible to ship complete libraries of new books — the very same books that are used by the University of Minnesota, Harvard, and other top law schools in the U.S.”

Each donated library contains about 200 titles. The books are new and focus on four key areas: common law; business and contract law; human rights and international law; and procedural texts, which explain the basics of being a lawyer (e.g., ethics, trial preparation, document drafting, depositions, etc.). The books are shrink-wrapped onto a single pallet and are shipped whenever Books For Africa has a container with open space that’s headed to a region in need. In addition, every year Thomson Reuters sponsors one entire shipping container, which can hold 20 pallets of books, or about 22,000 general reading books that are distributed to schools and libraries.

The power of literacy

Though the number of donated legal texts is comparatively small relative to the thousands of books his organization distributes every year, their impact is disproportionately large, Ayres explains.

“The power these books have to help further the rule of law is enormous,” says Ayres. “In Nigeria, for instance, they are helping to combat Boko Haram and other terrorists that have arisen over the past decade. Remember, most countries in Africa do not have the capability to print their own legal textbooks, so they rely on rulings and precedents in American and English law, primarily.”

Three years ago, Sayles-Belton and Thomson Reuters Senior VP Tom Pfeifer also negotiated an agreement to have supplemental legal texts printed with Sweet & Maxwell in the UK (coordinated locally by Tania Quan), as well as Carswell in Canada. Half the Carswell texts are printed in French and are sent to such Francophile countries such as Chad and Rwanda, which pattern their courts in part on the French civil code. Likewise, Portuguese law books printed by Revista in Brazil are now making their way to places like Mozambique, where Portuguese is the official language. A new library may also be shipped this year to the Namibia Supreme Court.

“We currently have far more requests for law libraries than we can possibly fill,” says Ayres, adding however, that just illustrates the need for them.

Indeed, everywhere in Africa books are both a luxury and necessity. Without them, illiteracy and poverty doom far too many Africans to lives with little or no hope of improvement. With them, the ideas and ideals upon which a democratic society depends can take root and grow, and leaders can work to create social and government institutions that foster economic development and social progress.

Books For Africa’s Law & Democracy Initiative is a small part of the ongoing effort to spread literacy and democracy to Africa’s neediest populations. But in places where the rule of law is fragile, a book containing the right ideas can very well be the difference between anarchy and civility.

By Tad Simons, Blogger, Legal Executive Institute