Notes from the Field

The Legal Empowerment Approach

July 22, 2009

Decades of heavy investment in “supply side” rule of law initiatives in Asia and elsewhere have yielded limited results. Programs focused on training judges and other court officials, introducing modern case management systems, and reforming court procedures have not consistently translated into improved access to efficient and fair justice institutions for ordinary citizens, and particularly not for the poor, women, and other vulnerable groups. Frustration with these disappointing results has led to increased attention on legal empowerment as an alternative approach.

Legal empowerment programs have proliferated in recent years. Rather than focusing on improving judicial institutions and processes, the legal empowerment approach seeks to build the capacity of citizens and communities to enforce their rights through legal and administrative procedures. These programs generally combine activities including the dissemination of information on legal rights and procedures, community based trainings, legal counseling and paralegal services, community organizing, advocacy, and even efforts aimed at reforming laws and legal institutions.

As an organization at the forefront of supporting legal empowerment efforts throughout the Asia-Pacific region, The Asia Foundation has undertaken a number of studies to critically evaluate the efficacy of legal empowerment as a strategy for improving local governance and alleviating poverty. The most recent study, “Legal Empowerment for Women and Disadvantaged Groups,” which the Foundation implemented with support from the Asian Development Bank (ADB), examined two key questions: First, can legal empowerment initiatives make development assistance more effective, particularly in reaching women and disadvantaged groups? And, second, how can we evaluate the impact of legal empowerment efforts?

The first question recognizes that there is often a gap between the objectives of mainstream socioeconomic development projects and their results, particularly in reaching vulnerable groups. This gap may be due, in part, to the fact that development projects rely on the active engagement of key stakeholders, including both citizens and local-level officials. However, these individuals, particularly women and other disadvantaged groups, often lack the know-how, confidence, time, or incentives to participate in ways envisioned by the project, while the government officials responsible for administering a program may be unfamiliar with their obligations to extend services to all members of the community. The study hypothesized that legal empowerment could help bridge this gap by providing vulnerable groups with the information, training, assistance, and confidence needed to enforce their legal rights.

To test this hypothesis, the project added pilot legal empowerment components to ADB-funded development projects in Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Pakistan. These legal empowerment initiatives were specifically designed to enhance the effectiveness of the larger development assistance projects, particularly in terms of their positive impact on the lives and women and disadvantaged groups. In Indonesia, for example, a legal empowerment component was added to the ADB’s Neighborhood Upgrading and Shelter Sector Project (NUSSP), which aims to provide low income families and communities with resources to improve their homes and neighborhoods. To access the project’s resources, however, potential beneficiaries must navigate a range of administrative procedures. These requirements present a major obstacle to ordinary citizens, particularly to the poorest of the poor, who generally lack the necessary knowledge, skills, and confidence to navigate such hurdles. The legal empowerment initiative included a range of activities to help overcome these barriers: a media campaign to raise awareness among both citizens and government officials responsible for administering the NUSSP; a series of briefings and trainings on how to access funds available through the NUSSP; a guided tour of the land agency office to educate participants on land registration procedures; and a mapping of local community needs to promote the interests of poor residents.

The second question the study examined was how to evaluate the impact of legal empowerment projects. Legal empowerment is a gradual process of change. It doesn’t happen overnight and its effects are not always tangible or easily observed and quantified. We can have a high degree of certainty about superficial measures, such as the number of individuals trained or the number of brochures distributed. But it is very difficult to answer the more important questions: What, if any, practical, concrete impacts do legal empowerment activities have on people’s lives? Are there clear, measurable differences we can expect to see between a person who is legally empowered and one who is not?

A distinctive feature of the study is that it not only asked these tough questions; it also included a rigorous monitoring and evaluation methodology, which was designed to test the effectiveness of the various legal empowerment strategies employed in the pilot projects. The monitoring and evaluation effort included baseline and end-of-project surveys administered in both intervention sites that received legal empowerment and control locations that did not. The surveys examined changes in four components of legal empowerment – knowledge, confidence, strategies used to assert one’s rights, and the outcomes of those strategies. For example, respondents were asked where they would seek assistance to deal with certain problems; whether or not they are able to participate in local level decision making bodies; and if they are confident in their ability to follow official instructions when seeking government services.

This methodology provided a basis for comparing differences between individuals who received legal empowerment and those who did not, giving us a more objective basis for understanding what works and what doesn’t, and why. The findings suggest that legal empowerment can indeed assist in advancing the goals of development assistance programs, while the recommendations include practical strategies for the integration of legal empowerment components in future sectoral development programs. Read the full report.

Debra Ladner is The Asia Foundation’s Director of Law Programs. She can be reached at dladner@asiafound.org.

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