Thursday, September 18, 2014
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Legal Power to the People

NEW DELHI – Inspired by Anna Hazare’s hunger strike, thousands of people gathered at Ramlila Grounds in New Delhi to protest governmental corruption. Protesters here and around the country pressed for a specific political change – a new institution to combat corruption– and, in principle, they won. Parliament passed a resolution accepting their demands and is now drafting a bill accordingly.

But the demonstrations were also motivated by a larger aspiration, one that is more difficult to achieve: that the day-to-day workings of government become more accountable, more tied to the citizens whom government is meant to serve.

Two of the great international movements since World War II have arrived at exactly this challenge. The human rights movement has led nearly all countries to endorse human rights norms, at least in name. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International can therefore use documentation and public advocacy to shame governments for egregious violations.

But shaming alone cannot address every breach of basic rights: a juvenile is wrongfully detained, a factory poisons a river. There must be a consistent system by which citizens can protect their rights in daily life.

In the parallel movement for economic development, governments and agencies have sought to alleviate poverty by fostering growth and improving essential services like health care and education. But it is increasingly apparent that effective development depends on citizens’ ability to hold public institutions accountable. Governments and donors can build clinics and schools, for example, but the investments are meaningless if the drugs and books aren’t delivered, or if the nurses and teachers don’t show up to work.

The solutions to these problems do not lie in elections or representative democracy alone. They require a substantial, ongoing relationship between citizens and the state. You might call it a matter of “legal empowerment”: of ensuring that laws and policies reside not only in books or courtrooms, but also on the street and in the home, within the grasp of every person.

Realizing that vision requires investment, innovation, and learning across countries.

The hopeful spirit at Ramlila Grounds this August was reminiscent of Barack Obama’s campaign for the American presidency in 2008. But even fervent demonstrators acknowledged that the new Lokpal they demanded – a national ombudsman office – would face some of the same implementation challenges that have dogged India’s existing institutions for accountability.

And while reforms like the Lokpal seek to improve the state’s capacity to provide redress, there is an equal need to bolster citizens’ capacity to seek redress. Conventional legal aid is not always workable; it’s necessary to experiment with more flexible, context-responsive models. Community paralegals, for example, can solve many problems using mediation, advocacy, and education, especially if they’re backed by a smaller corps of public interest lawyers.

The international community should address these challenges by establishing a global fund for legal empowerment. Legal empowerment is a public good: it renders governments more accountable, and makes development more equitable. But unlike public health, for example, states have a natural disincentive to support legal empowerment, because it constrains state power – which is all the more reason for a multilateral financing mechanism.

Social movements in India, the Middle East, the United States, and elsewhere are demanding institutions that promote greater citizen participation and oversight. The challenge of responding to those movements does not belong exclusively to a handful of governments. It belongs to all of us.

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