Legal Empowerment, Governance, and Development

As published in CFR Development Channel


A new consensus has emerged in recent years that good institutions—especially the fair and predictable rule of law, and accountable governments that effectively serve their citizens—are prerequisites for sustainable and inclusive growth.  In this view, getting governance right is an integral part of reducing poverty.

Yet most of the development policy initiatives designed to improve governance in poor countries with weak institutions are aimed at “capacity building” from the top down. For example, the U.S. Partnership for Growth and Millennium Challenge Corporation, both of which make good governance a cornerstone of their economic development strategies, provide assistance to developing countries to build government administrative capacity in election administration, service delivery, public financial management, and tax collection, while simultaneously setting governance benchmarks to assess the performance of these recipient governments.

This focus on government systems, while critically important, sidesteps the heart and soul of accountable governance—the ability of impacted communities to advocate and organize on their own behalf, to demand that elected officials deliver on promises, and to represent themselves in courts so laws are fairly enforced in practice as well as in theory.

Into this breach have stepped a new generation of law and development practitioners, who are now pioneering an emerging strategy of legal empowerment. Legal empowerment, according to the nonprofit organization Namati, “is about the capacity of all people to exercise their rights and to participate in the process of governing.” Namati has opened 16 community-based paralegal offices in Sierra Leone since 2009, more than doubling the number of paralegals providing free basic justice services in the country. Namati explains that “paralegals use advocacy, mediation, organizing, and education to assist citizens in finding concrete solutions to instances of injustice.  Like primary health workers, community paralegals are close to the communities in which they work and deploy a flexible set of tools.”

Likewise, the World Bank Justice for the Poor project is working with traditional landholders in Vanuatu to improve the transparency and accountability of the land leasing process, in order to ensure that customary rights holders, and especially women, are not pushed off their land by shady backroom land deals. This approach aims to give poor rural landholders a voice in the process that determines how land is allocated, in order to protect the interests of poor and vulnerable groups who might otherwise be pushed aside by more powerful interests.

The evidence that governance matters for economic development is overwhelming. But technocratic interventions and capacity building for bureaucrats are not enough. Good governance also requires the empowerment of impacted communities, so they can hold officials accountable by representing their own interests at the ballot box, in the streets, and in the courts. Justice for the poor requires that the poor have a voice. By building capacity from the bottom-up, legal empowerment initiatives are working to build that capacity and voice.