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The Politics of Crime, Law and Development in Historical Perspective

Author Accepted Manuscript of Chodor, T. & Blaustein, J. (2022) 'The politics of crime, law and development in historical perspective' in Deciancio,M., Nemiña, P. & Tussie, D. (Eds.) 'Handbook on the Politics of International Development'. Edward Elgar. pp. 118-130.

Published onMay 28, 2022
The Politics of Crime, Law and Development in Historical Perspective


The significance of crime and law is recognised in the contemporary development agenda, as illustrated by Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16, which urges the international community to ‘promote peaceful and inclusive societies…provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions’ (UN 2020a). This stems from what is referred to as the ‘crime-development nexus,’ the belief that crime, violence, corruption, and the absence of rule of law represent significant obstacles to development, by undermining citizen security, decreasing trust in governments and hampering growth and investment (Blaustein et al. 2020). As a result, development institutions such as the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the World Bank, and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) all promote the ‘rule of law’ and ‘good governance’ as essential to achieving sustainable development. As this chapter highlights, this agenda can be traced back to the aftermath of the World War II and is rooted in dual, albeit complementary, aims. The first of these involves constructing the legal systems necessary for capitalist development in the developing world. The second seeks to address the criminogenic consequences of this development and, from the 1990s onwards, their impact on the global economy.

            This chapter considers how this agenda evolved over three eras of development: the Cold War, the neoliberal period, and the current era of Human Development. Across these eras, the understanding of the relationship between law, crime and development was framed through the dominant development theories of the time, from modernisation theory, through neoliberalism and now human development, which themselves were shaped by the evolving material, ideological and institutional structures of the international system (Cox 1987: see also Ocampo and Rivarola Puntigliano in this volume). However, as this chapter highlights, there have also been some important continuities across this period. In particular, the international community has overwhelmingly approached crime and ineffective (or corrupt) governance as problems that disproportionately affect the developing world, and which should be addressed using knowledge, expertise, and resources that overwhelmingly originate in the core. Relatedly, these problems have consistently been treated not only as obstacles to the successful integration of developing countries into a global capitalist economy, but perhaps more significantly, as potential threats to global liberal order, both economic and political in nature. In short – as with the rest of the development project – the efforts to promote the rule of law and combat crime have been more about the interests of the core, rather than those of the periphery, a dynamic which continues to shape the efficacy of these efforts.

            This chapter is divided into three sections, corresponding to the three eras of development. Firstly, it examines the Cold War era, during which the ‘law and development’ movement aimed to transform ‘traditional’ legal systems in the periphery into ‘rational’ and predictable ‘modern’ ones that would uphold contracts and property rights and foster economic growth and industrialisation. This was coupled with a focus on rising crime in the Third World, which was thought to open the door to a communist takeover, prompting development actors to promote ‘social defence’ projects to modernise and strengthen criminal justice systems and foster new normative systems of control. The failure of both projects led to the neoliberal era of development, which is examined in the second section. In this period, law reform was redefined to creating legal systems that would facilitate private market transactions and limit the state’s interference in the economy, in order to make developing countries more attractive to foreign capital. In this context, little attention was paid to crime, as it was assumed that the explosion of economic growth resulting from neoliberal reforms would resolve all developmental problems, including crime. Instead, the growth never materialised while crime rates exploded, again leading to concerns of a social breakdown and backlash against neoliberal globalisation. This resulted in the current era of human development, which is examined in the final section. In this era, the law and crime projects have converged and become central to the Sustainable Development Agenda, with development actors stressing the significance of ‘rule of law’ and ‘good governance’ not only for attracting investors and fuelling economic growth, but also to protecting human rights, democracy and justice. Similarly, rule of law is seen as central to addressing crime and violence and enabling citizens to enjoy ‘freedom from fear,’ with development projects promoted community-based justice and anti-crime programs, and criminal justice and security sector reform. The chapter concludes by considering the efficacy of these projects.


Crime, Law and Development during the Cold War Era

The development project which began after WWII was premised on spreading capitalist modernity to the newly independent states of the ‘Third World.’ This was part of a broader Cold War struggle between the United States (US) and the Soviet Union, in which the former utilised its aid program and international organisations to promote capitalist development as an antidote to communism, which was understood to thrive amid poverty and instability. The intellectual underpinning of this project was ‘modernisation theory,’ encapsulated by the work of Walt Rostow (1960) which held that development was a linear process, progressing through  a set of stages from traditional society to the age of mass consumption. Modernization theory was based on an idealised version of Western history, with Western states drawing on their own experiences and expertise to assist their developing counterparts through close political, economic and cultural ties, with ‘modernity’ diffusing to them in the process. International organisations were a crucial part of this diffusion, providing aid and technical assistance to facilitate modernisation.

Modernization theory was never fully accepted in the Third World and various indigenous theories such as structuralism and dependency theory identified the need for a much more prominent role for the state in driving the development process, in particular industrialisation (Sunkel & Paz 1970; Furtado 1976; Frank 1967). These ideas found some purchase in organisations such as the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), and contributed to the emergence of the Import Substituting Industrialisation (ISI) development model, under which state-led industrialisation and the creation of a domestic market were conducted behind tariff walls. Although the ISI model differed in its prescriptions for stimulating economic development, like modernisation theory, it was committed to the project of capitalist modernity.

            Law was an important part of this project. This stemmed from a theoretical tradition which began with Max Weber (2012), who argued that the rule of law and a rational justice system were the necessary pre-requisites for capitalism, given they provided the high degree of predictability and calculability necessary for entrepreneurs to invest in capital accumulation. Later, American sociologist Talcott Parsons (1966) argued that a rational legal order was a defining feature of modernity, contrasted with traditional societies where law was applied arbitrarily and underpinned by political or religious authority. These ideas were central to Rostow’s (1960) work, which saw a stable, rational legal system – styled on the American model – as intrinsic to modernisation (Krever 2018: 185-188). These theoretical claims were put into practice by the ‘law and development’ movement in the 1950s and 1960s when US development agencies including USAID, private bodies like the Ford Foundation, and US law schools teamed up to develop and implement law reform projects in the developing world (Messick 1999: 125). These identified the ‘traditional’ legal systems – where laws were often ill-defined, poorly enforced and lacked legitimacy – as a key obstacle to development, because they failed to offer economic actors the certainty and predictability necessary to invest and stimulate economic growth (Trubek 2006: 76). Accordingly, capitalist development in the Third World was seen to necessitate the creation of rational and predictable legal systems that would uphold contracts and property rights, and therefore attract foreign investment to stimulate industrialisation and economic growth.

In practice, this entailed efforts to reform legal systems along American lines based on the belief that transplanting US institutions to the Third World ‘would hasten progress towards modernity’ (Krever 2018: 188-189). Specific projects sought to reform courts and legal procedures to make them more efficient, and to professionalise judges and lawyers to enhance the impartiality and legitimacy of the legal system (Tiede 2018: 416). At the same time, the movement highlighted the crucial role of law in macroeconomic coordination for development. Given the centrality of the state in ISI, law and regulation were seen as crucial instruments to channel economic actors – public and private – towards its goals. Accordingly, law and development projects focused on training programs in universities and legal schools to encourage policy-oriented lawyering (Trubek & Santos 2006: 5). The aim was to create a new type of ‘modern’ lawyer: a pragmatic, instrumental problem solver, who would help policymakers develop and enforce laws and regulations, advise state-owned enterprises on how to realise their goals, and counsel private clients on how to operate within the developmental parameters established by the state (Trubek 2006: 75). Law was treated as central to development, an instrumental tool to transform society by removing ‘traditional’ barriers to modernity, with lawyers the social engineers carrying out this process (Messick 1999: 126). Once successful, this ‘legal development’ would result not only in economic growth, but also secure the broader benefits of modernity, such as democracy, human rights and freedom (Gupta 2015: 329; see also Tappata Valdez in this volume).

While the law and development movement championed the importance of a modern legal system for stimulating economic growth, the international community also recognised that crime represented a potential consequence of modernization. As they launched ambitious developmental projects, Third World countries saw an increase in recorded criminal activity. For example, between 1962 and 1978, crimes against the person in the developing world increased by 444 per cent, while property crimes increased by 523 per cent (Arthur & Marenin 1995: 196). The attribution of this increase to economic development was once again influenced by modernization theory, and the work of American criminologists and sociologists who were themselves influenced by Emile Durkheim’s work on anomie (Durkheim 2014; see also: Blaustein et al. 2018). The fundamental idea was that as societies industrialised and became more complex, traditional bonds of solidarity broke down in new urban centres, while new normative systems of social control lagged behind. Accordingly, people’s aspirations and goals, increasingly influenced by consumerism, were not effectively regulated by traditional societal norms, and ultimately exceeded society’s capacity to satisfy them. Criminality was thus understood to represent one possible response to the social disorganisation and the strains created by modernization (Clinard & Abbott 1973; Shelley 1981).

The concern was that a significant increase in urban criminality would further hamper economic and social development, as failure to provide law and order drained support for the state, and scared away domestic and foreign investment. As the Kenyan government observed in 1969: ‘without internal security, it is not possible to maintain an atmosphere conducive to rapid development’ (cited in: Clifford 1973: 6). Underpinning this concern was a deeper fear that criminality and the breakdown of law and order would lead to social collapse, thus opening the door to a communist takeover, as citizens grew frustrated with the failure of modernization to deliver not only prosperity, but also security. In this regard, American sociologist Robert Merton (1938) noted that rebellion represented another possible adaptation to material strain, one that involved rejecting culturally defined goals and replacing social and economic institutions.

Despite these potential instabilities, however, International Financial Institutions (IFIs) like the World Bank argued that security and public order were issues of national sovereignty, and thus outside of its remit, and focused instead on channelling investment into infrastructure projects (Krause 2014: 382; see also Mendes and Pereira in this volume). Consequently, the issue was left to the UN which established a small Social Defence Section consisting of Western criminological experts in the Secretariat in 1947 (Walters 2001: 211). In 1953, the Section was specifically directed by the UN Economic and Social Council to examine ‘prevention strategies of types of criminality resulting from social changes and accompanying economic development in less developed countries’ (United Nations 1960: 1; Blaustein et al. 2019) The resulting research report echoed the Durkheimian characterisation of rising criminality as stemming from urbanisation and industrialisation, and set out a set of measures to help developing countries confront this problem (Panakal & Khalifa 1960). These were inevitably based on the Western experience, reflecting modernisation theory’s linear approach to development, with the UN seeking to ‘assist…the underdeveloped countries through making available to them the experience of countries more advanced in the prevention of crime’ (United Nations 1954: 262). Through research and quinquennial Congresses, the Section called for technical assistance to modernise and strengthen criminal justice systems in the developing world. This included better coordination and planning between the different institutions of the system, including the police, prisons, courts, probation and parole services, so as to increase its efficiency in preventing crime (Clifford 1973: 27-28). Particular attention was paid to juvenile delinquency, which was seen as driving the explosion of criminal activity (Blaustein et al. 2018: 209). In response, the Section called for investment in education, childcare and welfare to break the cycle of delinquency early, while also promoting programs with religious and community groups to develop new normative systems of control to restrain potential young offenders (Clifford 1973: 30; Walters 2001: 214). Finally, the Section also stressed the need for robust planning of urbanisation, to avoid the uncontrolled and rapid growth of slums, which were seen as engendering criminality (Clifford 1973: 14-15).

However, despite the Section’s advocacy for criminal justice reforms, these rarely eventuated. Indeed, both social defence and law and development had lost their lustre by the 1970s. In relation to the latter, many law and development practitioners grew increasingly frustrated as their reforms failed to have the desired effect. Legal institutions turned out to be resistant to ‘modernisation’ and ‘rationalisation,’ with local elites rejecting reforms which undermined their power. More worryingly for the movement, when reforms were implemented, there was often little diffusion of the other aspects of modernity such as democracy or human rights. Instead, law and development practitioners found that legalism, instrumentalism and authoritarianism made for a stable combination (Trubek 2006: 79). Likewise, the movement faced criticism for simply transplanting American legal institutions to the developing world, with critics accusing it of ‘legal imperialism’ carried out by ‘legal missionaries,’ who sought to remake developing countries without sufficient knowledge of local conditions (Gupta 2015: 329). This was a broader problem with modernisation theory and its linear notion of progress and development. It was also an issue for the social defence approach, with dependency scholars pushing back against the Durkheimian analysis to argue that high levels of crime were the result of unequal power relations caused by global capitalism and colonial criminal law systems, and that crime represented a form of resistance by the marginalised masses (Odekunle 1978; Sumner 1982). The influence of dependency theory on the international crime policy agenda is uncertain but social defence projects seemingly had little effect, and the UN shifted its focus to ‘international crime’ as developing countries descended into the ‘lost decade’ of the 1980s. Moreover, by then, the state-oriented approach to economic development came to be seen as anachronistic in the new era of neoliberalism.


Crime, Law and Development in the Neoliberal Era

The neoliberal turn in development emerged throughout the 1980s, as part of ‘Structural Adjustment Programs’ (SAPs) promoted by the IFIs in response to the 1982 debt crisis, which required drastic cuts to welfare spending, rolling back the state’s role in the economy, liberalisation of trade and investment, and privatisation of state-owned enterprises. These measures converged into a ‘Washington Consensus,’ which stressed a minimalist state, free markets, and integration with the global economy via comparative advantage as the means to development (Williamson 1990). While the neoliberal model abandoned modernisation theory’s acknowledgement of the role of the state in promoting capitalist modernity, it retained many of its core features, not least a belief in the linear nature of development, with Western (idealised) economic models set as examples for developing countries to follow. Moreover, the end of the Cold War and the US-Soviet rivalry meant that – in Margaret Thatcher’s words – ‘there [was] no alternative’ to the neoliberal model, especially with many parts of the Third World – now referred to as the Global South – mired in economic crisis. Likewise, globalisation meant that developing countries were increasingly reliant on foreign investors and transnational corporations, which demanded a ‘business friendly environment’ to provide the capital and technology necessary for development (see Gutierrez Haces in this volume).

            Once again, law reform was an important part of this project. In the neoliberal conception, the economy consisted of a market where individuals used resources efficiently in response to price signals. Thus, law was necessary to facilitate private market transactions between individuals, and to limit the state’s ability to interfere with them (Krever 2011: 298). Consistent with the theoretical tradition of free market capitalism championed by neoliberals such as Friedrich von Hayek, the neoliberal model held that capitalism depended on a legal system where property rights are enforced and the executive operates within a predictable framework (Messick 1999: 122). These ideas were further developed by the New Institutional Economics approach of Douglass North, who argued that free markets were underpinned by institutions – especially formal rules such as constitutions, laws and property rights – which were necessary to facilitate economic exchange. Indeed, North argued, the absence of the effective means of enforcing contracts ‘was the most important source of both historical stagnation and contemporary underdevelopment in the Third World’ (North 1990: 54). Similarly, Williamson argued a ‘high-performance economy’ required a well-functioning legal system conducive to long-term contracts lest firms circumvent the judicial system (Williamson 1995: 181). In this context, the role of law reform projects changed from establishing the administrative state to promoting legal reforms that would encourage private transactions and protect property rights (Trubek & Santos 2006: 2). This focused on the promotion of judicial independence, as independent courts were seen as a check against a strong state, preventing expropriation or arbitrary policy changes that would harm investor interests. Thus, judicial independence was seen as a means of building trust with foreign capital, which would encourage investment (Tiede 2018: 416).

            Accordingly, legal reform became increasingly common in aid and development projects, aiming to ‘make the legal systems in developing countries and transition economies more market friendly’ (Messick 1999: 118). The US again took the lead, developing projects in Central and Latin America which were subsequently extended to Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet sphere after the Cold War. In total, USAID spent around $200 million on such projects during the 1990s, with other institutions, such as the Justice and Commerce Departments, and even the Securities and Exchange Commission, also getting in on the act (Messick 1999: 117; Carothers 1998: 103-104). Similarly, the World Bank began to include law reform in its SAPs, beginning with Argentina in 1989, focusing on reforming court administration to increase its efficiency (Ayres 1998: 22). Between 1994 and 1999, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and the Asian Development Bank, provided $500 million in loans for judicial reform projects in 26 countries, and by the end of the decade the majority of developing and post-Soviet countries were receiving assistance to reform their legal systems (Messick 1999: 117). These focused primarily on increasing judicial independence, speeding up processing of cases, increasing access to alternative dispute resolution and professionalising judges and lawyers (Messick 1999: 119). Thus, the focus was on civil and commercial law, which the Bank argued fell within its remit of promoting economic growth (Ayres 1998: 22). To illustrate this, the Bank’s research found that of 3,600 firms in 69 countries, 70 per cent complained that an ‘unpredictable judiciary’ was a major problem, and that the level of confidence in the legal system was correlated with levels of investment and economic growth (Messick 1999: 122).

            In this context, little attention was paid by the IFIs to crime. As noted, institutions such as the World Bank saw criminal justice as beyond their remit, while Northern aid programs focused on promoting neoliberal transformation, with the expectation that the resulting explosion of economic growth would solve all sorts of economic and social problems, including crime. Meanwhile, the Social Defence section at the UN underwent multiple transformations during the 1970s and 1980s, with its focus eventually shifting to the governance and prevention of transnational crime (Blaustein et al. 2019: 6-11). This reflected an emerging belief amongst Northern countries that globalisation was contributing to an explosion of transnational crime which threatened state sovereignty and licit global markets (Andreas & Price 2001).

And yet, the neoliberal era saw an explosion of domestic manifestations of crime and violence in many parts of the Global South. Already high, homicide and robbery rates in Eastern Europe, Latin America and Central Asia doubled between the early 1980s and early 1990s, as the SAPs increased poverty an inequality (Bourguignon 2000: 203). By the late 1990s, research indicated a clear relationship between rising crime and poverty and inequality, and linked these to structural adjustment (McIlwaine 1999: 459). Even the World Bank could no longer ignore this, and in 1998 published a report acknowledging that the contraction of jobs and wages, decline of public spending and deterioration of infrastructure were leading to a social breakdown, and forcing people – especially young males – to turn to crime as a ‘way out’ (Ayres 1998: 10). Echoing elements of modernization theory, the report warned that this corroded support for and legitimacy of the state, highlighting the dissatisfaction with judicial systems across Latin America and the Caribbean, with between 55 and 75 per cent of citizens holding a ‘very low opinion’ of it. This was a problem most pronounced amongst low-income citizens, with only 9 per cent of Chile’s urban poor rating the judicial system ‘good’ or ‘very good’ (Ayres 1998: 21).[1] While the end of the Cold War meant the fear that such discontent would lead to communism faded, the concern remained that a backlash against the neoliberalism in the periphery could nevertheless threaten the project.

These concerns were heightened by the fact that the Washington Consensus had not only resulted in rising poverty and inequality throughout the Global South, but was also failing to deliver on its main goal: economic growth. Between 1979 and 2000, the average annual global per capita growth rate was 1.5 per cent, compared to the 2.7 per cent between 1960 and 1978 (Milanovic 2005: 34). This provoked a search for answers with corruption identified as one of the main culprits, as it scared away the investment necessary to stimulate growth (Mauro 1995). Corruption was also presented as the cause of the failures of structural adjustment, particularly in the post-Soviet sphere, which saw widespread looting of public wealth during privatisation (Shelley 1998). Likewise, after the Asian Financial Crisis, commentators pointed to ‘crony capitalism’ as a major cause of the crisis (World Bank 1998; Krugman 1998). More broadly, neoliberals now began to consider crime and violence in the developing world as an obstacle to growth, as they scared away investment, destroyed public infrastructure and eroded human and social capital (Ayres 1998: 7-8). Researchers thus increasingly sought to quantify the cost of crime in terms of lost GDP. For example, a UNODC and World Bank report found that the total cost of crime in Jamaica in 2001 was J$12.4 billion, or 3.7 per cent of GDP, with 39 per cent of business reporting that they were less likely to expand because of crime (UNODC & World Bank 2007: vii). Another study found that gross capital formation in Colombia was 38 per cent lower than it would have been if the country’s homicide rates remained at 1970s level (Ayres 1998: 7).

Coupled with a renewed focus on crime was a growing critique of the law reform projects part of the SAPs. Critics pointed out that these repeated the mistakes of the first law and development era by seeking to transplant legal (and economic) institutions from the North to the South with little consideration of local conditions, or proof that these produced growth. This was especially jarring as countries which avoided such reforms, like the Asian Tigers, experienced growth and prosperity during this era (Gupta 2015: 332-333). This challenged the neoliberal notion that all that was necessary to facilitate growth was a legal system which would constrain the state and uphold private contracts (Trubek & Santos 2006: 6). It also echoed a larger critique of the Washington Consensus from scholars such as Joseph Stiglitz, who argued that enthusiasm for the free market needed to be tempered with a more prominent role for the state in correcting market failures and regulating economic activity (Stiglitz 2002). It was also around this time that scholars such as Amartya Sen called for the international development community to look beyond economic growth and focus on ‘human development’ (Sen 2001). Both critiques would subsequently extend into the understanding of the relationship between law, crime and development in the post-neoliberal era. 

Law and Crime in the Human Development Era

The current era of development represents recognition of the failures of neoliberalism, combined with an enduring commitment to free markets and globalisation. Concerns that the neoliberal tide was not ‘lifting all the boats’ led the proponents of the Washington Consensus to ‘bringing the state back in,’ recognising that for markets to work, the state needed to create the underlying institutional environment for them (Kuczynski & Williamson 2003). This ‘post-Washington Consensus’ argued that the key missing ingredient in the pursuit of development was ‘good governance’: ‘a predictable and transparent framework of rules and institutions for the conduct of private and public business’ (World Bank 1994: vii). Thus, development, according to Bank President James Wolfensohn, required an ‘effective state’ that could correct market failures and ‘encourage and complement the activities of private businesses and individuals’ (cited in: Krever 2011: 305). At the same time, there was an attempt to broaden the definition of development to the more encompassing notion of ‘human development,’ which the UNDP defined as ‘a process of enlarging people’s choices…to lead a long and healthy life, to be educated, and to enjoy a decent standard of living’ but also as ‘political freedom, guaranteed human rights and self-respect’ (UNDP 1990: 10). Human development thus had political and social dimensions, involving respect for human rights, the promotion of gender equality and environmental sustainability (Thérien 2014: 278-279). Such an approach offered an attractive alternative to the Washington Consensus, because its expanded definition of development did not challenge the overall focus on markets or global economic integration, aiming instead to promote ‘globalisation with a human face’ (UNDP 1999). As such, it was quickly embraced by developmental institutions and incorporated into both the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000 and the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015.

            Against this backdrop, the two agendas converged through what Carothers (1998) described as the ‘rule of law revival.’ The World Bank identified rule of law as the foundation for good governance, consisting of a situation ‘where the government itself is bound by the law, every person in society is treated equally under the law, the human dignity of each individual is recognised and protected by law, and justice is accessible to all.’ This required ‘transparent legislation, fair laws, predictable enforcement and accountable governments to maintain order, promote private sector growth, fight poverty and have legitimacy’ (World Bank 2004: 2-3). While this was partially the continuation of the neoliberal agenda, rule of law was framed as a multifaceted concept which also emphasised commitments to human security and human rights. This was reflected in the UN Secretary-General’s definition of it as ‘a principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the state itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards’ (UN Secretary-General 2004: 4). Therefore, rule of law entailed not only judicial independence, but also a commitment to political liberty, democracy and justice (Krever 2011: 311). In doing so, it reflected the liberal conception of the state, under which law makes possible the individual rights at the core of democracy, with the government’s respect for the sovereignty of the individual based on its acceptance of law (Carothers 1998: 97). Nevertheless, the appeal of rule of law was that it appeared non-ideological and technical, all the while promoting Western conceptions of democracy and capitalism (Carothers 1998: 99).

            As a result, global development institutions increased their focus on rule of law. By 2004, the World Bank had approximately 600 projects on legal and judicial reform, with its expenditure on governance and rule of law programs almost doubling between 2001 and 2006, amounting to $4.6 billion in 2006 (Desai 2018: 221; World Bank 2004: 3). While framing these as empowering the poor and crucial to sustainable development, their actual content continued to reflect neoliberal assumptions about the need to create the ‘right’ conditions for economic growth, with a focus on judicial independence and increasing the efficiency of the court systems (World Bank 2004: 6). A more expansive approach was taken by the UN, particularly its crime program, which was transformed into a standalone organisation – the UNODC – in the late 1990s. During the 2000s, UNODC framed good governance, the rule of law, the absence of corruption and human safety as the ‘software’ of development, necessary to complement the traditional focus on infrastructure (or ‘hardware’), and pushed for these to be included on the Sustainable Development Agenda (Blaustein et al. 2020). In this, it found collaborators including World Bank and Northern member states, which also championed the importance of good governance and the rule of law for development (Bergling & Jin 2015). The culmination of this was SDG 16, which includes a number of targets relating to promoting the rule of law, fighting corruption, increasing the effectiveness, accountability and transparency of institutions, ensuring public access to information and protecting fundamental freedoms (UN 2020a). The UN refers to SDG 16 as an ‘enabling’ goal, highlighting the centrality of the rule of law for the whole Agenda (UN 2020b).

            The impact of the rule of law agenda also extends to the issue of crime, with human development proponents arguing that if citizens are vulnerable to crime and violence, the possibility of upholding property rights or contract enforcement is unlikely (Tiede 2018: 411-412). Reinforcing this link, a 2005 UNODC report invoked Sen to argue that ‘freedom from fear’ was as important as ‘freedom from want,’ and that it was ‘impossible to truly enjoy one of these rights without the other’ (UNODC 2005: 101). This echoed the emerging consensus that security was central to sustainable development, encapsulated in Kofi Annan’s In Larger Freedom report, which warned that ‘we will not enjoy development without security, we will not enjoy security without development, and we will not enjoy either without respect for human rights’ (UN Secretary-General 2005: 6). This approach built on the neoliberal era critiques which framed crime as an obstacle to development, by adding the human development dimension to it, with research illustrating that those regions facing the greatest development challenges were also plagued by conflict, crime and insecurity (Krause 2014: 384). One of the most significant was the World Bank’s 2011 World Development Report, which noted that no low-income, fragile or conflict-affected country had achieved a single MDG, and that countries experiencing major violence had a poverty rate 21% higher than those that saw no violence. This, the Bank warned, had not only economic but also human security consequences, creating a situation where ‘everyday experiences…become occasions for fear.’ Echoing modernisation arguments, the Bank noted the self-fulfilling nature of these situations, with the absence of growth, employment and prosperity fuelling resentment and grievance against the state and society, driving youth to join gangs and organised crime groups (World Bank 2011: 5-6). In this context, the Bank concluded, sustainable development was impossible, and there was a need to build up the resilience of societies from crime and increase the legitimacy of state institutions (World Bank 2011: 7-8).

            Consequently, the human development era has seen a renewed focus on combating crime and violence. At the core of this is SDG 16, which includes a number of targets on reducing violence and death rates from crime, preventing trafficking and violence against children and combating organised crime (UN 2020a). These provide an overarching framework through which development projects attempt to tackle the issue at both community and national level. In relation to the former, projects promote community-based programs for violence prevention, access to local justice, dispute resolution, and service delivery in insecure communities. There is also a focus on what the World Bank calls ‘back to basics job creation,’ namely public works to provide employment in the most impoverished communities, in order to prevent youth in particular from turning to crime. On the other hand, projects also seek to reform criminal justice systems to improve their capabilities, including improving caseload processing and investigation and arrest procedures, and increasing awareness of legal rights amongst citizens (World Bank 2011: 18-19). They also attempt to increase transparency and oversight of security forces, often overlapping with security sector reform and state-building projects, which aim to enhance the effectiveness and accountability of security institutions. This often includes efforts to build up coalitions with non-state actors – including civil society and business – to put pressure on the state to confront crime (Reitano 2018a: 118).  

The overall aim of these projects is to rebuild trust and confidence in the state as an effective actor that can combat crime and violence. This is part of a broader international push to shore up ‘fragile’ states, with concerns that citizens are turning against their governments and towards crime and violence (Reitano 2018b: 29-30). As the World Bank warns, these risks are not confined to the developing world, inevitably spilling across borders and having regional and global repercussions, via reduced trade, higher costs of doing business, increased refugee flows, or terrorist attacks (World Bank 2011: 5). Accordingly, just as during the previous eras, the inclusion of law and crime in development projects is more about the interests of the Global North – whether in terms of securing the right environment for capital, or precluding the backlash against the dominant development models – than those of the world’s most vulnerable. 


This chapter has examined how the agendas of law promotion and social crime prevention unfolded during three eras of development. In the first instance, it accounted for the influence of modernization theory on the efforts to transform ‘traditional’ legal systems in the periphery into ‘rational’ and predictable ‘modern’ ones. This was coupled with a focus on rising crime rates in the Third World, understood to be the natural outcome of development, as modern societies destroyed old social bonds and normative systems of social control. The failure of both projects led to the second, ‘neoliberal’ era of development, during which law reform was redefined as creating legal systems that would facilitate private market transactions and limit the state’s interference in the economy. In this context, little attention was paid to crime, as it was assumed that the economic growth resulting from market liberalisation would reduce crime. When the growth failed to materialise and crime rates exploded, concerns with a backlash against neoliberal globalisation resulted in the current era of ‘human development’ in which the law and crime projects have converged and become central to the Sustainable Development Agenda. Accordingly, today’s development projects promote ‘rule of law’ and ‘good governance,’ not only as a means to attract investors and fuel economic growth, but also to protect human rights, democracy and justice. Similarly, rule of law is seen as central to addressing crime and violence, with development actors highlighting the importance of ‘freedom from fear.’ The efficacy of these projects remains to be seen, but given their focus on protecting the interests of the Global North, they are unlikely to address the persistence of crime, violence, corruption, and the absence of rule of law in the developing world.


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[1] Chile is an interesting example to consider because it was an early adopter of neoliberal policies. At the time of publication, it was considered one of the safest countries in Latin America, however its economic and social successes came at the expense of political liberties and widespread human rights violations (including mass atrocities) during the 1970s and 1980s.

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