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The majority of international development assistance supports hunger prevention, healthcare, education, water, sanitation, and security. More modest but important foreign assistance efforts focus on democracy initiatives and justice sector reforms. The process of building a responsive and efficient justice system requires resources, expertise, and time. For more than 50 years, national governments, international organizations, and private foundations have invested in promoting the rule of law across the globe.

This piece describes these efforts. Information about how the United States government supports international justice sector reform can be found here.

Sources of Funding

Most funding for international rule of law assistance comes from one of four sources: (1) multilateral organizations, (2) foreign governments, (3) private philanthropy, and (4) multi-donor trust funds.

Multilateral Organizations

There are more than 200 multilateral organizations active in supporting developing countries in improving their justice sectors, including the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), and European Union. Multilateral financial institutions (global and regional development banks) support rule of law efforts by issuing grants and loans at a low or no interest rates, usually with affiliated technical assistance to guide the effective use of funds.

In 2021, the largest multilateral donors contributing to rule of law efforts were the United Nations (145.365 million USD), European Union (1.680 million USD), and the World Bank Group (1.750 million USD). In 2023, the combined funding from other multilateral institutions, including the International Law Development Cooperation, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and Organization of American States was 54.741 million USD).

National Government Foreign Assistance

Many nations actively support legal and judicial reform in developing countries. The ten largest bilateral donors (ranked from high to low) are: the United States, Germany, EU institutions, Japan, United Kingdom, France, Canada, Italy, Sweden, and the Netherlands.

The graphic below is interactive. Use the arrows to view the different data fields.

Private Philanthropy

The largest private donors working with international rule of law are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Mastercard Foundation, Ford Foundation, BBVA Microfinance Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Bezos Earth Fund, Bloomberg Family Foundation, Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, IKEA foundation, Welcome Trust, and Postcode Lottery Group. Foundations typically offer grants to local organizations dedicated to improving access to justice.

Multi-Donor Trust Funds

Multi-donor trust funds combine contributions from individual bilateral donors with funds from multilateral organizations to support specific rule of law initiatives in countries or regions. One example is the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Trust Fund which assists member states with implementing national measures for executing judgments of the European Court of Human Rights. The objective of this program is to reduce the number of human rights violations and prevent duplicative litigation in national courts. Other examples are the Multi Donor Trust Fund for Justice Sector Support In Serbia and the Law and Order Trust Fund for Afghanistan which operates under the authority of the UN MPTF Office Partners Gateway.

Typology of ROL Assistance

Typology of Rule of Law Assistance

Rule of law assistance comes in different forms, including grants and loans to support the implementation of new justice sector policies, infrastructure needs, and technical expertise.

For example, the World Bank has financed the construction or renovation of courthouses. The EU has delivered budget support to fund justice sector projects. Multilateral organizations offer low or zero interest loans to under-resourced countries to support institutional development. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development is the largest development bank in the world and supports the World Bank Group’s efforts. Recipients of large loans from the Bank include Nigeria, Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ethiopia (source World Bank).

Donors provide a wide range of infrastructure support to help under resourced developing countries purchase office equipment, computers, software, printers, storage solutions for court files, and videoconferencing equipment. As part of its foreign assistance portfolio, the European Union may provide budget support to poor countries if certain conditions are met: macroeconomic stability, political will, transparent budget management, performance-based evaluations.

Technical assistance is an important component of foreign aid and delivers a broad range of expertise (guidance on policy, practices, and infrastructure development, assistance with legislative drafting and professional ethics) as well as training and research. International donors sometimes carry out technical assistance projects themselves. However, this work is often implemented by non-profit institutions, private contracting firms, non-governmental organizations, or intergovernmental organizations. Public and private sector experts consult on organizational development, court administration, strategic planning, education and training, and security issues. They may also participate in empirical assessments of the judiciary, providing data and advice to guide the reform process.

Goals and Principles Guiding ROL
Goals and Principles Guiding Rule of Law Foreign Assistance

The donor community has varied motivations for supporting international rule of law development. A well-functioning and accountable justice sector enables global peace, security, economic development, and poverty reduction. This benefits the world community through promoting national stability, reducing international security risks, and encouraging trade and investment opportunities. Foreign assistance can also be politically motivated, providing donors with influence in recipient countries.

Some of the larger international donors, including the United Nations and European Union, use criteria based on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) to guide their justice sector assistance.

Key ROL Funding Goals

The key guideline is SDG 16 which is focuses on the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, the provision of access to justice for all and building effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels. Other relevant SDG provisions include SGD 1 (poverty reduction), SDG 5 (gender equality) and SDG 10 (reduced inequalities). Poverty reduction programs may include projects to strengthen the civil justice system and improve prospects for business development and foreign investment. Gender equality initiatives promote gender balance in the courts and domestic violence prevention. Immigration reforms target reducing social and economic inequity.

International ROL Funding Challenges


Implementing rule of law reform is challenging. This is especially so if there is not a firm and long-term commitment on the part of the donor or recipient government. The absence of a national justice-sector strategy can complicate the development and execution of projects. Challenges often arise on the donor side: the absence of coordination (sometimes resulting in duplication of efforts or inconsistent methodologies); frequent changes in priorities and program implementers; and failure to identify domestic needs and preferences. These problems are mitigated by donor and implementer communication and, where appropriate, collaboration as well as regular monitoring and evaluation of programs and projects.

Despite the importance of supporting justice sector reforms, international rule of law assistance is in decline, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic period 2020 – 2021. 

Key ROL Funding Goals