Erik G. Jensen, 58, a professor of the practice of law and director of the rule-of-law program at Stanford University, has been working with Stanford's law students to develop legal curricula for universities in developing countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Rwanda, and Timor-Leste, previously known as East Timor. This is his account of those efforts, as told to Angela Chen.
In 2007, two students walked into my office and said they wanted to do something with the American University of Afghanistan related to the field of law.
I've been doing law and development for nearly 30 years, so I was aware of deep deficits in the availability of appropriate textbooks in poorer countries. The textbooks are either woefully outdated or have no relationship to the law and its practice in the countries in which they're taught. So we started out creating a textbook called An Introduction to the Laws of Afghanistan, and those efforts expanded into the Afghanistan Legal Education Project.
The project is a seven-unit commitment for Stanford students. They take my course on state-building and the rule of law, write chapters for the textbook that they're assigned to work on, work on project management, and have weekly Skype sessions with faculty at the American University of Afghanistan. They then go to Afghanistan for an extraordinarily intensive week. There are some security concerns, so it's definitely a self-selecting group, but almost all the students have chosen to travel in recent years, except for two whose spouses said no.
In Afghanistan, the students meet with faculty, go through peer-review sessions with faculty and students, and sit in on classes for which they're literally writing the textbooks. In all this, my level of oversight is not heavy-handed, and that's intentional. My students are excellent. They don't need heavy-handed oversight, and if I were to do that, I would stifle the energy and initiative that attracted them to the rule-of-law projects to begin with. The high standards that they set, and their commitment and sense of ownership, are tremendous.
A "virtuous cycle" of demand and ability to meet demand keeps the projects going. For example, you have my students—who are capable of producing high-quality products—helping the students in Afghanistan, who use the textbooks and are taught by well-qualified professors. The Afghan students demand more law classes and more textbooks. The project and younger projects in Kurdish Iraq, Rwanda, and Timor-Leste are all built on the model that you either have demand and very close working relationships with the faculty and students, or you don't have a project. It's impossible to force-feed this sort of process.
In the next year, we're going to be writing a textbook on property law in Afghanistan, and one on property law in Timor-Leste. We hope to launch our first course at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, and it is likely that we will be partnering with the National University of Rwanda and the National Law Reform Commission of Rwanda.
This is quite different from a lot of work that goes on in development, in which rule-of-law consultants land on the scene, give a bunch of advice that may not be appropriate in the local context or even doable, and make fabulous amounts of money. This student model makes these projects extraordinarily cost-effective in the context of the development industry, because the student labor is free, and they can produce books that compete favorably against ones that might be written by high-paid rule-of-law consultants.
For students, there's a high level of achievable altruism in these projects that is really satisfying. They work hard knowing that what they write is not simply going to be read by a professor and graded, but that they can actually do research and writing that makes a difference to people in other countries.