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The Global Context of Legal Empowerment

by Dr Naresh Singh

Despite the rapid developments taking place in all world economies, poverty is visible in different forms of people's lives. It is a known fact that major functions and contributions of an economy today in any given developing country lies on the hands of informal economy. In this case, the poor and their day to day life depend on the informal economies of our countries. The lack of access to legal protection, formal policies and effective welfare systems and lack of recognition of economic assets/activities worsens existing vulnerabilities and further constrains the economic and social development opportunities of the poor. Since the majority of the economic activities are under the informal economy, the formal sector is being overshadowed. This condition results in issues such as slow economic growth, less revenue and less opportunity for investment in health, education and infrastructure and increasing number of governance problems, corruption and discrimination; It is the poor who are engaged in the informal economy are impacted more than the formal sector as the opportunities for poverty reduction & effective social service provisions are affected.

In response to this reality of the Poor in the world, the United Nations Development Programme in 2005 hosted the Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor (LEP). The commission was an independent organization which has been the first international initiative to focus on the link between EXCLUSION, POVERTY & LAW.

Analysis of power

Legal empowerment is not as much as about law as it is about power. How does the poor ever manage to take power? In an establishment of the elite, those who have power will never give power to those who do not have. Thus, how does the poor possibly get empowered? This leads to the question of does ‘empowerment’ really make sense as it just doesn’t work in reality. The research work of the commission and the process of using the recommendations have confirmed what works, in reality, is rather ‘Self-empowerment’ instead of just empowerment. Self-empowerment works when people take power, which then leads to the question of how do people take power in legal means?

The Problem

In 2008, it was estimated that four billion people on the planet could not use the law to make their livelihoods or improve their living conditions. The only time they encountered the law was in connection with some punitive action. They could not use the law to improve their own livelihoods whether it was access to justice or for protection of their labour, business or property rights.. In India, currently 90% of livelihoods are in the informal sector and 50% of the GDP comes from the Informal sector. Most of these activities, therefore, are not able to use the law for improvement or protection. Additionally, the 2008 facts reflected that there were twenty million legal cases pending in Indian courts and there are only 10 judges to every one million people. In the other hand, in Cairo at that time, it took 500 days, 350 laws and equivalent of 6 months of wages to register a bakers shop. What is the problem here? The existing legal systems and procedures are not in practical terms and are hindering development opportunities further for the people, particularly the poor. Thus, the tendency to function in informal means without using the law becomes a norm.


The simplest articulation of the solution to the situations related to Access to the Law is to have people engaged in taking greater control of their lives using the Law. Thus, the solutions lie on the Four Pillars of Legal Empowerment that has been the base for the report of the Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor.

1. Property Rights

2. Business Rights:

3. Labour rights:

4. Access to Justice & Rule of Law

Therefore, the Empowerment Process and the strategies for the process are explained in four steps:

Step One: Mobilization; People need to form groups, referred to as mobilization of concerned population.

Step Two: Articulation; the issues that people want to address to be clearly articulated.

Step Three: Contestation; Where you have to contest the existing power structures to change the law that keeps people far oppressed & in poverty.

Step Four: Confirmation; Finally the confirmation in Law.

These four strategies work together with each pillar of legal empowerment in achieving its objectives.

Global Context & Sustainable Development Goal 16

Sustainable Development Goal 16 aims to achieve Peace, Justice & Strong Institutions by 2030. It demands governments promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provides access to justice for all and builds effective, accountable and inclusive intuitions at all leaves. All the 17 SDGs are clearly interlinked and thus, SDG 16 has to be taken into consideration in the context of all others. Looking at most of the countries’ recent commentaries at Davos 2019 and considering what is happening economically, politically and socially around the world, it is obvious that Economic elites are finding new ways to justify what they do best. SDG16 have to be achieved in this context.

Populism and its impact: Are we heading a leaderless world? Populism has resulted in weakening the President of France, Chancellor in Germany & United States ended up electing a non-Leader.

Globalism: globalization has been taking place forever as a natural process. Important is not globalization but ‘globalism’ which is the ideology rather than the process. These global aspects couples to gather crating global situations and we thus have a triple confidence crisis.

a. We have a problem globally, nationally with Democracy which is sort of a receiving.

b. Global institutions continues non democratic actions (IMF, WB & WTO)

c. Large corporations which continue to be driven by greed and by the tax evasion.

We are in a global world which China’s Presidency summed up as an “unpredictable International scenario” that he is calling for vigilance against ‘black swans’, things that going to happen that we could not predict or ‘Gray Rhinos’, things which are obvious but ignored.

In this context, the impact of SDG 16 and its progress, in general, has been in a low phase. Some indicators progress reflects as follows;

· Birth registrations: In 2008, 50% of the babies born in Sub-Sahara Africa were not registered at birth and still the numbers remain the same. Though the Global average does show improvement including India.

· Freedom of Information is major challenge although it has been improving.

· Rates of Free trial detentions: There have been very slow progress and 2003-2005 it has been in the rate of 32% and currently it has only made a 1% change.

· Poverty has been reducing significantly, but most of it has come from one part of the world and thus it is an average that has done well and not shared globally and people in sub-Sahara African is still in extreme poverty.

· Legal Empowerment of Women and Girls: This is an indicator that needs a lot of attention. There are strong and effective legal & International norms can be built. Ex. Convention of Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CIDA) & Maputo Declaration on Agriculture and Food security.

· Achieving the rule of Law in conflict states: States that are fragile and in conflict has significant challenges and in the process, there are important new ideas developed. For example: considering the idea that Solutions are not technical but it is political; blending politics with technical interventions in a slow and evolutionary manner by not using classic project kind of interventions.

In conclusion, the aspects of the rule of law are under challenge around the world. Governments have to backtrack the core elements of the rule of law from judiciary independence to accountability and fundamental human rights. This behaviour is evident in developed and developing countries. As political and economic commentator Martine Wolf has written ‘there is a growing ascendancy of authoritarians around the world’. At the international level influential states have grown and bolder in their effort to undermine international support to the rule of law. Active opposition who have rules based on international order is being led by states once instrumental in the creation of post-WWII intuitions constitute of that order Governments can bristly murder journalist and other states barely register disapprobation due to trust in economic calculations.

The offsite claim that good governance and rule of law is essential to economic progress is being challenged empirically as illiberal states rap up suitable goals over many years. Authoritarian governments and private firms collude to exploit state resources and company assets to personal enrichment. In Europe, major banks have to launder tens of billions on closet funds for top managers at so convective internal controls and compliance systems leading the international financial law review to as whether the continent has begun to be money lauding heave. Overall, the landscape of the rule of law appears weak and increasingly hopeless.

However, there is that another perspective has sharply contrasted with this characterization. On the alternative view rule of law remains a vital concern that increasingly central to the development agenda and the SDGs that seek to advance norms and standards across domains ranging from Human Rights to investment laws. Indeed a hallmark of 2030 agenda is to hard wire the Human Rights based approach to development policy and practice. Many have argued that governance and rule of law have significantly improved in developing countries over the past 20 to 30 years. The International Criminal Justice tribunals which struggling with ongoing growing pain continues to enforce international criminal law and help to strengthen reorganization in their legitimacy and authoritative risk of these norms. In the meantime, against the objection of certain United Nations members, UN Human Rights mechanisms launched an investigation to the above models.

Meanwhile, countries compete for rankings in the Ease of Doing Business by improving predictability and quality of domestic regulatory frameworks. Global Anti Corruption treats and crosses border Judiciary Corporation is now increasing. Additionally, Civil Society organizations are actively working to advocate and enforce Human Rights and other governmental norms such as Transparency, Accountability and Responsibility.

Therefore, there is a dueling narrative in the context of legal empowerment in today’s world.


Based on the speech and commentaries during the Policy Dialogue on 11 February 2019, New Delhi by Dr Naresh Singh, International development Adviser based in Canada, with a special focus on Sustainable livelihoods and Legal Empowerment.

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