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Adding Muscle to Africa’s Parliaments

LAW students help continent’s legislators draft laws

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Working from the ground up: in the slide show above, Adam Peltz (LAW’11, GRS’11) helps build a community radio station. In 2009, while interning at the Legal Resources Centre, a legal NGO based in Accra, Ghana, he worked on a UN-funded Right-to-Media project. Video by Nora Dunne

With the oil industry ready to drill, baby, drill in fragile coastal areas, Adam Peltz drafted a law calling for a small claims court to compensate seaside residents for any damage by oil prospectors.

Never heard of a Congressman Peltz? That’s because student Peltz (LAW’11, GRS’11) drafted his law to apply to seaside residents in Ghana, on the chin of Africa. His client was the Legal Resources Centre, an African human rights group with whom Peltz worked on two projects. One, presented in the video above, was the Right to Media program, which hopes to expand community radio networks around the country. The other, which involved drafting laws for a better world (not to mention academic credit) is the point of the School of Law’s Africa i-Parliaments Clinic, launched last fall at the behest of the United Nations.

The program pairs LAW students in Boston with parliamentary groups and nonprofits in Africa to research and write legislation spanning issues from telecommunications and energy to vital statistics and development. Available fall semester to second- and third-year students, the clinic’s debut drew 12 takers, a number comparable to the school’s decades-old clinics that provide assistance to the Massachusetts legislature and nonprofits, says Sean Kealy, a LAW clinical associate professor, who teaches in the new clinic.

Peltz’s law has not been enacted. Neither has a law drafted by any other student, partly because the clinic can’t afford to send people to Africa for face-to-face meetings, and partly because “we never want to be seen as trying to tell an African nation what they should be doing,” says Kealy. The real goal is to help African lawmakers become better at lawmaking.

Peltz thinks it works. “I came to Boston University to study international development, and the clinic fit perfectly with my interests,” he says. “It gave me a concrete tool for effecting systemic change that is quite different from merely throwing aid money at a country and hoping it pulls people out of poverty.”

The UN-supported African Parliamentary Knowledge Network broached the idea of the clinic to BU, according to Kealy. “Their real interest is to build capacity in parliaments throughout Africa,” he says. Often starved for resources and legal expertise, many parliaments are emasculated by “the power, the money, the prestige” concentrated in presidencies, where legislation typically hatches.

“If we just wanted to give our students an African experience, we’d go to the presidents’ offices. This is a much bigger venture,” he says. “How do you help a place like Africa? How do you make it more stable? The key is getting the parliament to be a more effective organization for the people of Africa.”

Other clinic clients have included the East African Legislative Assembly, which seeks harmonized laws for its 5 member nations, and the Southern African Development Community, a 15-nation alliance promoting improved standards of living.

Lakeisha Applegate (LAW’10) (from left) and Professor Ann Seidman at a Uganda drafting conference. Photo courtesy of the School of Law

The “i-Parliaments” in the clinic’s name reflects the Web research students do in the absence of a travel budget, something Kealy and his colleagues Robert Seidman, a professor emeritus of law, and Ann Seidman, an adjunct professor of law, hope to remedy some day. “African legal data is thin on the ground in the United States, because a lot of it has not been digitized,” Peltz says. “The clinic’s reports and bills would have been enhanced if students had been able to conduct on-site research, but the costs and timing would be prohibitive.”

The Seidmans devised the drafting methodology that students use in the clinic. They also run LAW’s Legislative Policy and Drafting Clinics and planned a recent drafting conference in Uganda for African parliamentarians.

BU’s is one of the few law schools that teach legislation drafting, say the Seidmans, who emphasize using evidence in the drafting of laws. If that approach sounds like a no-brainer, “it is not universal,” Robert Seidman says. More typically, lawmakers “copy law from another country, or they write a compromise between competing interest groups, or they criminalize everything in sight,” he says, or write vague mush for laws. Compromise is essential in legislating; Seidman says the problem comes when satisfying special interests becomes the only backbone to laws, without evidence that they’ll advance public welfare.

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

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