Let’s voice our support for legal empowerment, including property rights

August 6, 2013

Reading Time: 3 minutes

There’s rising momentum in the world today for legal empowerment of the poor. There’s growing recognition that the law need to work for everyone, rich and poor, and that without full legal rights, including access to legal services, a legal identity and property rights, billions will be denied the opportunities they need to lift themselves out of poverty and end systems of discrimination and exploitation.

There’s rising momentum in the world today for legal empowerment of the poor. There’s growing recognition that the law need to work for everyone, rich and poor, and that without full legal rights, including access to legal services, a legal identity and property rights, billions will be denied the opportunities they need to lift themselves out of poverty and end systems of discrimination and exploitation.

We need to stay focused this. That’s why we were pleased when BRAC shared the stage with Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer who won the Nobel Peace Price in 2003, at the World Justice Forum in July. Represented by Faustina Periera, the director of BRAC’s human rights and legal aid services program, BRAC accepted the award on behalf of the founder, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, and the entire BRAC family – including 12,000 barefoot lawyers.

We should all voice our support for BRAC workers, including staff and these self-employed barefoot lawyers, and many others who fight to uphold the law for the poor, sometimes at great personal risk to themselves.

Legal empowerment should be part of the “MDG 2.0” targets – that is, the post-2015 set of development goals that will replace the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.

Sir Fazle Hasan Abed and financier-philanthropist George Soros, from whom Abed recently received the Open Society Prize, wrote in the Financial Times last year:

Without basic legal empowerment, the poor live an uncertain existence, in fear of deprivation, displacement and dispossession. A juvenile is wrongfully detained and loses time in school; village land is damaged by a mining company without compensation; an illiterate widow is denied the inheritance she is entitled to and is forced on to the streets with her children. By what means can individuals and communities protect their rights in daily life?

There’s growing optimism that we can put an end to extreme poverty, yet an estimated 4 billion people live outside the protection of the law. This needs to change.

Critics may dismiss the talk of “rule of law” as a way to end poverty as idealistic chatter, but when you start addressing the problem at the human level, it’s anything but. BRAC has found it’s possible to scale up legal empowerment programs to reach millions. We’re running such programs not only in Bangladesh, where the HRLS program has reached 3.7 million people and is the largest NGO-led legal empowerment program in the world, but also in Sierra Leone.

The hallmark of the human rights and legal aid services program has been legal literacy – that is, raising women’s awareness of their rights and the importance of upholding them in the face of discrimination and exploitation in their own communities.

We do this by training and deploying “barefoot lawyers” – people from poor communities themselves, who have trained in the basics of legal empowerment for their neighbors. They then lead classes in legal education for others in the communities. We also provide direct services to clients to uphold claims and resolve disputes before they turn violent.

Property rights is but one component of this program. We’ve found, however, that about 70% of cases that come up are related to land or property in one form or another, be it disputes over dowry, marital conflict or domestic violence.

That’s why we partnered with Omidyar Network to scale up the BRAC’s property rights initiative. Funded by BRAC USA and Omidyar, the program saw 10,748 households receiving land measurement services from a trained cadre of 192 land measurers during the pilot phase in 2012.

In The Mystery of Capital, Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto – who along with Madeleine Albright, chaired the Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor, which Abed also served on – points out that in the West, every parcel of land, every piece of property, is represented by a property deed can be used to create capital, which people use to further improve their lives. In the US, for instance, the most important source of funding for new businesses is an entrepreneur taking out a loan using his or her home as collateral.

Shouldn’t poor people in other countries be able do the same? People living in slums are often de facto owners of the homes they live in. In poorer villages, people have often tilled the land for generations with no property deed. Without formal recognition of their property ownership, they have no access to capital to jumpstart their businesses and take control of their lives. This is what the property rights initiative is all about.

As Abed and Soros wrote, “Strengthening the rule of law is more important than ever. A legally empowered citizenry is both the guarantor and lifeblood of democracy. Poverty will only be defeated when the law works for everyone.”

Sign up for our monthly newsletter to add your voice to those who support local initiatives by the poor themselves to end poverty.

Above: “Grassroots Justice,” a short video from Open Society Foundations

See also: “Why Property Matters,” by Karel Boudreax, Director, Investments, Omidyar Networks

 

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What an inspiring and wisely transparent post. Unique for sure.

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[…] through one of BRAC’s barefoot lawyers, Ferdousy was able to get help through alternative dispute resolution that included a settlement […]