ENSURING FAIR DEALS
An international pro bono organisation is helping to put top-level lawyers at the service of developing countries that need help against corporations
Governments of developing countries may well have access to better resources than they could have imagined, for legal help with renegotiating international contracts or making complex new deals.
During the SADC Lawyers’ Association conference in
Botswana last week, panellist Katerina Drisi explained the role that could be played by the organisation she works for, the International Senior Lawyers Project (ISLP). Speaking during a session on extractive industry agreements and environmental regulation compliance, she said the ISLP, based in New York and London, was an international pro bono programme.
Through the ISLP, senior lawyers, worldwide, donated their time and experience to help with pro bono work aimed at ensuring a level field in negotiations between developing countries and international investors. Many of these lawyers were retired or close to retirement, and highly skilled in their fields. The organisation’s focus includes natural resource management; community-inclusive development; antibribery and anticorruption work; investment, trade and tax; and economic and social development.
In a later interview Drisi said the ISLP helped governments in developing countries to access the expertise of top lawyers. One of its first interventions to help review existing contracts was in Liberia, where government wanted to re-negotiate contracts with Firestone and Arcelormittal, whose original terms were extremely disadvantageous to that country.
Drisi said the ISLP worked with other organisations such as the African Legal Support Facility and the Connex Unit, established by GIZ, a German development agency, to offer assistance with complex contract negotiations. The Connex Unit provides resources, support — and even financial, legal and technical assistance — to governments involved in negotiations over major contracts in the extractive industries sector.
She said that if governments requested it, the organisations with which ISLP worked could help finance lawyers with international expertise, as well as technical experts, to assist government in negotiations for complex contracts. Such experts could typically charge thousands of dollars an hour, so their usual bill for negotiation work might well be prohibitive. However, their pro bono service could ensure that this expertise was made available to governments in developing countries at no charge.
“A government needs to get the best deals possible for the citizens of its country. The experts who would come in to help have usually been involved in thousands of contracts and are often able to call the bluff of the international companies. They know the trends.
They might know the terms agreed to by these companies in other deals, for example, and could use that information to secure a better deal for the government.”
Drisi said there was an advantage for SADC lawyers who became involved in such deals, as the ISLP experts would expose local lawyers to new clients and give them new skills.
Local lawyers could benefit from the presence of these pro bono legal experts through partnerships with them. “These international law firms need to work with lawyers who know the local situation to partner with them and combine their expertise.
All the organisations (that ISLP works with) try to partner with local lawyers to build capacity in the countries where they work.”
Hundreds of experienced lawyers have already been involved, via ISLP, with clients in scores of countries. According to the ISLP website, it has delivered more than US$110M worth of pro bono legal assistance since its establishment in 2000, while its lawyers come from more than 50 firms and barristers’ chambers as well as leading NGOS.
One of its first interventions to help review existing contracts was in Liberia