International Organizations Clinic connects students with global policymakers

Many law school clinics work at the boots-on-the-ground level, assisting with individual cases, filing petitions and amicus briefs, and partnering with local organizations. But the International Organizations Clinic, co-taught by Gráinne de Búrca, Florence Ellinwood Allen Professor of Law, and Adjunct Professor Angelina Fisher LLM ’04, seeks to effect change from a different vantage point. The nine-person, one-semester clinic partners JD and LLM students with some of the biggest international organizations to influence policy across nations.

Although it works with institutional clients, the clinic’s vision remains focused on the public interest. “Many of the projects we’ve been doing are precisely about serving client populations but just in a broader, transnational way,” De Búrca notes. “We’ve worked on poverty projects, accountability, and with organizations that are trying to engage civil society.” An illustrative example of the clinic’s work is the report published recently by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), “Accountability through Civic Participation in the Post-2015 Development Agenda.”

Researched and written by Emma Clippinger ’15, Cheng Jean Liang LLM ’14, and Ian Murray ’15, the report takes on the task of proposing a system that allows citizens to hold their states accountable for commitments made as part of the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) agenda. SDGs build on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that the UN members states committed to in 2000 and which included halving extreme poverty by 2015. “One of the big gaps with the MDGs was enforcement and accountability,” De Búrca says. To strengthen the post-2015 agenda, “the UNDP asked us to focus on how citizens can hold states accountable given that these are not legally enforceable commitments.”

Serge Kapto, a UNDP policy specialist who worked with the students on the new report, says the stakeholders received the report warmly. The report also garnered attention from government officials, some of whom have since contacted de De Búrca and Fisher with follow up questions. This spring, Fisher presented the UNDP report at the Cartagena Data Festival, whose participants included representatives from international organizations, development agencies, governments, and civil society. The students’ work has joined a conversation that will culminate in September, when world leaders convene at a UN summit in New York City to adopt the post-2015 development agenda. De Búrca calls the report and the attention it has garnered a “significant achievement” for a clinic, not least because it shows that students really can influence a global discussion about sustainability and development.

The clinic is also an opportunity for students to see what it means to work in international law, says Fisher, who spearheaded its creation in 2012. Clinic students have worked with the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), UNICEF, UNDP, the World Health Organization, and the World Bank Inspection Panel.

Paul Mertenskoetter ’14 was one of the first students of the clinic. Now an International Court of Justice clerk at The Hague, he worked on the UNICEF project and benefited broadly from the experience. “The more exposure to UN institutions you get, the more you understand specific institutions and what they’re about or why they work the way they do,” he says. “You see the beast from different angles.”

Without question, the clinic demands a significant investment of time and labor, but once the semester wraps up, students have the opportunity to present their work to senior representatives from partner organizations. For some, that means finally having a face-to-face meeting after months of Skype conversations. Those working with the OECD and the WHO, for example, visited the Secretariat in Paris and the Geneva headquarters, respectively, to discuss their recommendations.

That kind of connection leaves an impression. “Legal research is a lot of individual time with a computer,” says Clippinger. “To go to the physical space in which that research hopefully is translated into action is exciting and reinvigorates the group and gives the project meaning.”

To navigate the complexity of these projects, De Búrca and Fisher also provide hands-on guidance via weekly meetings. Liang, who says the professors “guided her on the right path,” went on to do an International Finance and Development Fellowship at the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation, where she is now a consultant. “Definitely, one of the best things I got from the LLM was to have the UNDP project on my résumé.”

The high quality of the clinic’s work suggests a promising future and plenty of opportunities for students interested in international law. “It’s probably some kind of indicator of our success that we get repeat requests from organizations and from new organizations as well,” says Fisher, who added that the Fall 2015 clinic will focus on World Bank projects.

The UNDP’s Kapto affirms his organization’s continued interest. “I’m really itching to continue that collaboration in some way. There are many other issues that would benefit from this kind of engagement.”

Originally posted May 5, 2015