The Hague Institute for Innovation of Law’s Justice Accelerator programme: success for a modern version of Dutch entrepreneurialism

There is not much that you can teach the Hague’s Institute for Innovation of Law ( HiiL) about marketing. It has just produced a glossy brochure in English on its work as a ‘Justice Accelerator’ over the last four years. This began with its Innovating Justice Awards in 2011 and transformed into the accelerator programme two years later. HiiL invested a total of 460,000 euros (just under £400,000 or just under $500,000) in 40 programmes (after evaluating 1600 and shortlisting 384). It claims that this investment has provided access to justice for 1.4m around the world. Its ambitious aim is to increase such access to 20m people by 2020.

HiiL is the organisation that developed the Rechtwijzer interactive legal assistance programme. It is pretty impressive for a small Dutch institute now dependent on raising its own funds. It is led by the charismatic Sam Muller, an international lawyer who worked on establishing the International Criminal Court. Its research director is Professor Maurits Barendrecht. They head a small team which it would be fair to say is the very embodiment of a certain stereotype of the Dutch character: entrepreneurial, socially aware, international. They work from the Hague which styles itself as ‘the city of peace and justice’ and their government should be proud of how they navigate the world as social entrepreneurs in furtherance of delivering a national policy of making The Netherlands a global leader in the justice field. In this, they are but one indicator of Dutch engagement of this kind. For example, the Asser Institute, also based in the Hague and a consortium of Dutch universities, has a rather similar orientation in the research field.

In assessing any evaluation, you have to be careful of the small print. HiiL’s is based on a couple of surveys – one of those projects shortlisted and the other of those ‘fellows’ that were actually given support. It contains its own caveat.

Research bias. We recognize that these two surveys have their limitations. This is a retrospective study that fully relies on innovators’ own assessments of their impact. The number of respondents may not be high enough to demonstrate statistical significance, in particular for the Fellows survey.

This is the bugbear of much of the literature that is produced on technological innovation. It is published from those involved and is insufficiently rigorous.  That is what made an assessment by Victoria Legal Aid of its hopeless app of young people so valuable that it should become a classic in the field.

What we really need is an external assessment of HiiL’s work. In its absence, we are left to use the self-reporting of interested parties and the intuition of the reader. Personally, I am still happy to be impressed. It seems to me as if HiiL has done a good job. I like the fact that it has, over the years, reduced the number of innovations that it has shortlisted – down to 14 in 2011 from a peak of 93. I am sure that does allow HiiL ‘to provide more high quality support for each innovation’. I like also that it is setting up ‘hubs’ in countries where it is working – Nairobi, Lagos, and Kiev will be joined this year by Kampala, Johannesburg and Tunis. I like the fact that HiiL admits that close on a fifth of the innovations have closed and close on a half have not been entirely successful. That sounds honest. The programme seems well targeted in three categories: rights awareness, legal services and justice policies.  And, if the projects really have used HiiL funding to leverage close on another 11m euros then that is impressive. The boast, however, that ‘for every 3 euro we spent, 1 person got access to justice’ would seem capable of a bit more deconstruction. It invites some work on definition.

Key to the program is the assistance and mentoring that HiiL provides which links funding with training: ‘Winners of the Awards took part in our acceleration track including seed funding … The acceleration track is a customized six month trajectory of (local) mentorship on business development, justice sector engagement and impact. In 2016 the Justice Entrepreneurship School was launched to provide a training week for winners at the start of the acceleration track. For several startups each year, the acceleration track ends with follow-on funding, in particular from the local investment ecosystem.’ This opens up an interesting potential discussion for those institutions – and there are a number around the world – hold themselves out as supportive innovative hubs bringing on start ups to the next stage in their development. What gives most benefit to such businesses?

The range of organisations highlighted in the report is impressive – ranging from Ushahidi, a Kenyan reporting platform for human rights abuses to DIYLaw, a business oriented project in Nigeria. The examples in the report suggest that HiiL works in two rather different ways. First, it is a technology innovator in low income countries – very much with a commercial or, at least, entrepreneurial orientation. Second, it seems to operate more conventionally as a consultant to justice projects – as in the case of support for restorative justice for juveniles in Peru:

in 2015 the … team managed to influence Peruvian legislation leading to the elaboration of a national plan for teenagers in conflict with law. Ever since, the team has been providing strategic advice to the government, as well e-trainings and assistance to legal sector functionaries, including the judiciary …

HilL has chosen – or been directed – into a difficult path of seeking to survive on its own resources. That, by itself, requires the institution to dedicate itself to continuing innovation. But it will be a hard road to take in the longer term. There is no doubt that it currently is a global leader in its field and that is a tremendous tribute for a small institute in a small country.

Leave a Reply