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Advocacy in Africa: Political Science professor analyzes African courts

May 2, 2012

MEDIA CONTACT: Hilary Dickinson at or 608-363-2849

Due to her expertise in building the rule of law in eastern and southern Africa, Associate Professor of Political Science Rachel Ellett began doing research for Freedom House last year. The non-governmental organization based in Washington, D.C. supports democratic change, monitors freedom, and advocates for democracy and human rights in the world.

Ellett’s project with Freedom House was to develop a judicial independence benchmark assessment framework for southern Africa, and the first country to be assessed was Lesotho. As part of her research, Ellett conducted a series of interviews in Maseru, Lesotho and Johannesburg, South Africa last October with key informants from the legal sector, civil society and government.

One of the greatest challenges for Ellett was to wade through the political battles surrounding the judiciary and find a way to objectively write about them. She discovered that chronic underfunding continues to be a serious drag on the performance of the judiciary; perceptions of judicial independence in Lesotho are weak; and there has been an increase in the politicization of the judiciary due in part to heightened political volatility.

Ellett compiled her research into the Lesotho report, which she expects to be launched by Freedom House sometime this month. She plans to post the link to the report on her website. The 80-page report is intended for an audience of human rights and democracy activists, policy makers and governments, internationally and within Lesotho.

While the work for Freedom House was challenging, it was equally rewarding. Working for Freedom House gave her the opportunity to use her academic expertise for advocacy.

“I like that my work has important policy implications,” Ellett said. “Good governance has become central to the field of international development. Oftentimes practitioners approach this from a technical perspective, but what my research shows is how intensely political the process of supporting and building the rule of law is.”

This summer Ellett plans to complete her book manuscript for Routledge titled “African Courts and Emerging Judicial Power.” The book explores the paradoxical emergence of vibrant judiciaries in constrained political settings in eastern and southern Africa.

Source: Rachel Ellett is an associate professor of political science and the Moat Junior Professor of International Studies. Ellett teaches courses in international and comparative politics, with an emphasis on African studies. Her research interests lie at the intersection of law and politics, and she is currently working on projects in eastern and southern Africa and the Commonwealth Caribbean. She is also interested in the ways in which teachers can effectively draw on students’ study abroad experiences in the political science classroom. Ellett can serve as a media contact for topics related to her research and teaching.