Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In July, the World Justice Forum IV (organized by the World Justice Project) brought together more than 550 business and nonprofit leaders, legal experts, development practitioners, journalists, military leaders, social entrepreneurs, and other global luminaries from more than 100 countries to address critical rule of law issues around the world. In partnership with the Skoll World Forum and the Thomson Reuters Foundation, we asked a number of speakers to reflect on a wide range of issues including land rights, access to water, criminal justice, and much more. View the full series here.
The United Nations estimates that four billion people live outside the protection of the law, mostly because they are poor. BRAC sees this truth every day, which is why we have integrated justice into our mission of eradicating poverty. What does this kind of legal empowerment look like on the ground? Today, the number of BRAC sponsored legal aids clinics exceeds the number of police stations in Bangladesh, emerging as the world’s largest non-governmental legal aid service provider.
While we are still a long way from seeing the evidence in terms of world recognized empirical data that legal empowerment leads directly to development, we have incremental data that suggests that it is not so much the economic and legal empowerment through the rule of law, but economic and legal empowerment towards a rule of law paradigm.That is, towards a rule of law culture. We have noticed that the rate at which households graduate from ultra-poverty to poverty and then rise above the poverty level has to do with a combination of development support (financial inclusion, aid packages, etc.) coupled with an understanding of their legal entitlement to those services. Without understanding your rights, you cannot articulate your demand. If you cannot articulate your demand you cannot enforce them. We have seen this shift in behavior from being a beneficiary of aid to a stakeholder in the community; this is true legal empowerment.
For example, we have seen a shift in the behavior of a person who was once pleased but indifferent to BRAC digging a well. Now that same person understands she or he has a right to the clean, arsenic-free drinking water this well provides. This example of the meshing of a “rights-based” and “needs-based” approach is only one illustration. BRAC also runs a Barefoot Lawyers Program, in which 12,000 paralegals —all women, and primarily survivors of violence— have graduated from our legal literacy classes to understand, for example, what questions to ask if a government official is trying to bribe them, or what an arrest warrant looks like, etc. These women are deeply involved with their community members, and because the community trusts them, they are not intimidated to ask the barefoot lawyers for support. These practical approaches are already showing results. The merging of financial inclusion and basic services together with legal services and legal awareness can make all of the difference in the world in terms of long-term development.
However, while it is indeed noteworthy that BRAC likely has more legal aid clinics than police stations in the country, it is problematic when states abdicate their responsibility towards the poor in the justice sector by extensively relying on nongovernmental organizations to provide what is rightfully the duty of the state. The government and civil society sectors must work together to strengthen the rule of law. The state should be accountable and should invest more in justice for the poor.
We have arrived at a global moment where we can talk about marrying economics and legal empowerment together. We have a long way to go, but we are on the right path.
Editor's Note: Dr. Pereira joined BRAC in September 2007 as the director of the Human Rights and Legal Aid Services programme.