Monday, August 30, 2010

The Big Picture: Law and Development, Legal Empowerment and the Microjustice Movement

I was recently asked by the wonderful folks at Microjustice4All to write a short introductory article about how microjustice fits into the bigger Law and Development context. I revisited some content of this blog and realized that, while I have been blogging about Law and Development, Legal Empowerment and Microjustice for a while now, I don't yet have a post on the big picture context. So I'm reproducing my article as follows:

The Big Picture: Law and Development, Legal Empowerment and the Microjustice Movement

International Development is a relatively new field of practice, and even newer still is the Law and Development field, which began in the 1950s. For many years, Law and Development projects have been highly criticized as being ineffective, and even today, there continues to be many debates (both between academics and practitioners) about whether law has a role in bringing about international development, and if so, what that role is. The international community is still continuing to find new and better ways to old problems. Might microjustice be an answer?

While many smaller grassroots NGOs have always focused on concrete ways which law can be used to benefit poor people in their own countries, donor countries and large development agencies like the World Bank has concentrated on big, top-down law reform projects such as law-making, court reform and legal training. However, in the 1990s, these expensive programs appear to have made little to no impact on poor people at all. Along with a bigger movement to focus on the poor (spearheaded by the UN though the Millennium Development Goals), the Law and Development industry started to focus on the people who matter the most- not the judges, lawyers or formal legal departments, but marginalized, unempowered poor people.

Initial discussions among passionate people resulted in the formation of the United Nations ‘Commission on the Legal Empower of the Poor’ in 2005 to examine this issue. After three years of research and the publication of their report in 2008, ‘Legal Empowerment of the Poor’ soon became a new way to think about Law and Development. While there are still debates about the details of the UN report, most practitioners are relieved that, finally, the concept of bottom-up legal work focusing on the poor has been recognized in the international arena. In particular, grassroots organizations that have done legal empowerment work for as long as the big agencies have on top-down reform are the first to celebrate. Still, their work is far from over, because billions of people are still without basic rights, access to justice, and legal empowerment.

It is within this context that an individual started to explore innovative ways to bring justice and legal empowerment to poor people. Instead of the traditional donor-based approaches, Patricia van Nispen wanted to find a way to bring relevant legal services to the poor in a way that is truly sustainable and scalable. Patricia, who was nominated by renowned Utne magazine as one of 50 Visionaries who will change the world, pushed the envelope with a visionary concept called Microjustice, premised on the dignified belief that poor people are willing and able to pay for services that they need and want. With the creation of Microjustice for All, then MJ Bolivia, MJ Peru, MJ Argentina and now MJ Uganda, we are all together riding the exciting beginning of a big, unprecedented movement in the Law and Development field.

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