Tuesday, July 1, 2003

‘Legal Empowerment: Advancing Good Governance and Poverty Reduction’ - An ABD/TAF pubication

recently questioned in this post if Rule of Law (ROL) programs, as practiced, are really just a resurrection of the Law and Development Movement (which I also blogged about here). My reaction was pragmatic one: While I am interested in these debates and intend to continue to follow them, my belief is that there will not be one true solution, and I seek solace in the practical differences I make to people. Still, from my humble bottom-up grassroots beginnings in the development world, in recent years I find myself focusing increasingly on strategic and institutional issues, governance and legal/judicial reform work, and high level policy and law. Definitely top-down. And at the 1000 foot level it is sometimes different to see if we do make any impact at all.

Recently, however, The Asia Foundation, with funding from the ABD, published a paper suggesting a bottom-up approach: ‘Legal Empowerment: Advancing Good Governance and Poverty Reduction’, in Law and Policy Reform at the Asian Development Bank, by Stephen Golub and Kim McQuay Manila, 2001 (Full document at the ADB's website.) This article speaks to me, in light of my past experiences in the field, with NGOs like the one mentioned in the paper. Moving away from top-town ROL via institutions, the article uses disadvantaged groups as the focal point of asking: How can legal services and related activities increase their control over their lives? This also intersects nicely with Sen's 'freedom' concept, as well as the 'Rights Based' approaches that many prominent grassroots focussed NGOs- like CARE and Oxfam- have adopted.


(The summary below is an adaption from DFID's id21 review which can be found online here):

The article is a result of a seven-country study over a year. Using mainly qualitative inquiries, the results indicate that many NGOs and law schools help improve governance and reduce poverty as they address human rights (including minority and gender rights), the environment, agrarian reform, labour and other issues. Typically, these NGO initiatives do not involve only lawyers and are not confined to legal services, such as litigation, representation, negotiation, counselling and training. Instead they integrate that legal work with other efforts that build the capacities and power of marginalised populations – hence the term ‘legal empowerment’. These efforts can involve group formation, community development, community organising, paralegal training, political mobilisation, administrative advocacy and alliance building (with both government and civil society elements if possible). Invoking the law, they form a rights-based development strategy.

Key findings include:

  • Legal empowerment can improve the poor’s material resources and circumstances. It also alleviates poverty in the broader sense of strengthening the poor’s participation in decisions affecting their lives.
  • Legal empowerment helps the poor understand and influence government, particularly regarding the rights, needs and issues to which they attach highest priority.
  • While basic legal knowledge is helpful, often the disadvantaged cannot assert their rights unless they are organised. Thus the notion of ‘knowledge is power’ does not carry as much weight as that of ‘organisation is power’.
  • Civil society shows greater dedication and creativity than government in constructing legal empowerment strategies. Vibrant civil society, and laws that protect it, are important for such strategies.
  • Many of the poor’s legal needs and avenues for addressing them do not involve the courts. Administrative bodies, local governments, legislatures, alternative dispute resolution and informal processes often offer better vehicles for seeking justice.
  • Lawyers do not always play leading roles in legal empowerment. They may instead support the work of development NGOs, community leaders and the poor themselves.
  • While legal empowerment contributes to good local governance and getting laws enforced, it can also advance national legal and institutional reform by educating, mobilising and drawing on the experience of disadvantaged groups.
Policy recommendations include the following:

  • Legal empowerment should be integrated into mainstream socio-economic development projects. This could benefit projects and populations concerned with natural resources, women’s health, rural development, land tenure, decentralization and other fields by helping the poor engage with legal issues and institutions involved.
  • Legal empowerment should also be supported under the rubric of building the rule of law and human rights, because it directly addresses many of the poor’s greatest legal needs.
  • Such support should be focused on NGOs and law school programs wherever possible.
  • Law and development should be integrated by building bridges between the professionals involved. Law students should be engaged with development work through innovative clinical programs. Development workers should be introduced to legal knowledge and services.
  • The recent qualitative studies should be complemented by supporting surveys and related research that quantify the impact of legal empowerment. For example, demographically similar intervention and control populations should be compared.
  • Especially where civil society is weak, long-term strategies should be employed, realistic expectations should be retained, and inter-community and international exchanges should be used to fuel the flow of new ideas.
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