The challenges we face in eradicating poverty through sustainable development have never been more urgent. What is clear from sixty years of development studies is how little we understand of what works in development. The lessons of past failure have taught us that mono-causal explanations and one-size-fits-all models cannot capture the complexities of development processes that are always both local and embedded in shifting global and regional contexts. Globalization presents new challenges: increasing interdependency and new actors create new possibilities for co-operation and knowledge-sharing but pose new risks in increasing inequality and unsustainable economic growth. There is an urgent need for new evidence-based thinking in development that addresses these challenges while capitalising on the opportunities. A solid knowledge-driven approach to development policy-making is needed, based not on ideological explanations but on locally-defined needs and on empirical evidence of what works.

This urgency is reflected in the international and European priority accorded to development. Global support for the Millennium Development Goals and the weight attached to their achievement in the 2006 European Consensus on Development is testimony to the importance of sustainable poverty eradication to the whole global community. In order to achieve the goals laid down in the European Consensus, the EU and its Member States have pledged greater policy coherence, more effective aid and a differentiated approach based upon developing countries’ needs. These goals cannot be realised without substantial investment in knowledge about development.

Law is a vital part of addressing poverty and sustainability. Yet law and development has traditionally been orientated towards large-scale top-down institutional projects that favour the elite and have proven unsustainable. Since the mid-1990s, the complex and multi-faceted relationship between law and development has taken form in the new orthodoxy of ‘rule of law’ projects. Yet the role law can or should play is here too poorly understood and under-theorized; too often, economic theories and examples drawn from the North prevail in our understanding of law e.g. a focus on property law in developing economies in isolation from the specificities of individual Southern legal systems. Likewise, international institutions and donors impose a check-list of legal ‘attributes’ upon receiving countries that fails to capture the complex interaction of legal norms in practice. Too few contributions to this field are based on a complex understanding of law that is rooted in locally-defined needs. This project is a response to this knowledge gap.

Innovative research into law in development is taking place. Yet, due to the size of the challenge, the vast range of relevant areas (from corporate governance to technology transfer, micro economics to legal anthropology), the challenges of legal pluralism and the increasing specialization of research agendas, expertise must be pooled for a truly significant contribution to a knowledge-based approach to be made. Law and development is a multidisciplinary field that requires an interdisciplinary approach. The pull towards specialization leads to highly specialized researchers familiar with one piece of the puzzle but lacking the broader knowledge necessary to grasp the overall picture, identify common problems or connect to expertise in other areas. To address the complexities outlined above, research urgently needs to shift to large-scale interdisciplinary projects, analyzing problems from many alternate perspectives, aimed at joining pieces of the puzzle together. Such progress can only be made by focusing on doctoral education: by creating a critical mass of high-level research and by sending out experienced and highly trained graduates to work in other institutes. By pooling expertise within the consortium, significant progress can be made in transforming the nature of education and mobility in law and development. Moreover, by sharing best practices in teaching and supervision through a joint doctorate, the project will make a significant contribution to improving the range and quality of European higher education on offer.

A second problem with current research in law and development is the predominance of a desk-based, theoretical approach due to the costs and difficulties of conducting fieldwork in developing countries. Many researchers thus lack a vital set of practical skills e.g. inter-cultural communication and social science research methods. Such skills are key to a knowledge-driven evidence-based approach and must be a vital part of doctoral training in this field. To this end, a support network of institutions in the Global South, providing local support to researchers in their fieldwork, is also critical; moreover, the establishment of an associated project partner network will contribute to capacity-building in educational institutions in the South via staff and student mobility.

The partners in this consortium have come together to address these challenges in light of their mutually complementary areas of expertise, commitment to both research and training, and keen interest in student and staff mobility. All partners are firmly committed to the study of law in the development context and to developing sustainable networks linking educational institutions of the North and South.