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Special economic zones (SEZs) have spread rapidly over the past 20 years, including in many low- and middle-income countries keen to attract private investment for industrial development. But while much debate has focused on their economic performance and success factors, there are concerns over land expropriations, poor labour conditions and lost public revenues.
These concerns are often partly rooted in the legal regimes that underpin SEZs — their failure to protect affected people, their exempting SEZs from national laws or their weak arrangements to ensure compliance. At the same time, activists have in a few cases mobilised the law to contest SEZs and their impacts.
Policymakers should properly consider the legal regimes governing SEZs and recognise the role of social actors, including people impacted by SEZs, in shaping law reform. Legal scholars can support this by considering law both in the statute books and in practice, as well as the social, political and economic contexts in which the law operates.