Approximately two-thirds of the world’s population – roughly 5.1 billion people – lack meaningful access to justice. With no way to seek redress or remedy when their human rights are violated, they exist in what’s called the global justice gap.
Marginalized or at-risk communities – such as informal labourers, Indigenous peoples, or people on the move – are often unable to use existing laws to protect themselves or their assets from exploitation or abuse. And formal state justice systems, which are often geographically distant, costly, and slow, are often unresponsive to their urgent needs.
Historically, efforts to close the global justice gap have mainly been top-down initiatives aimed at reforming failures in our justice systems and strengthening national-level institutions like courts or government bodies. Although reform is an important step, formal institutions only solve the problems that are presented to them. They struggle to develop holistic solutions that address the underlying needs that may have created the conflict in the first place.
To meaningfully improve access to justice and close the global justice gap, traditional legal reform must be complemented by legal empowerment – a powerful, people-centred strategy to pursue long-lasting social change. Through greater investments at the community level, we can start to meet the needs of people affected by human rights abuses.
Legal empowerment doesn’t just address single issues. Instead, it looks at the root causes and the ecosystems to resolve the underlying, structural causes that gave rise to conflict in the first place. Legal empowerment taps into the wellspring of expertise within the communities to develop responsive, nimble, and reliable access to justice. For example, in Kenya, the legal empowerment organization Namati has helped marginalized communities receive identification documents so they’re able to enjoy the benefits of full citizenship.
Frontline human rights groups have been doing the slow, difficult groundwork of legal empowerment all over the world. But their work, driven by the communities and contexts in which they live, is intensely demanding and seriously underfunded. These disparate groups have not had the time, resources, or opportunity to coordinate their legal empowerment efforts into a broader global movement – until now.
In 2011, the nascent legal empowerment movement took a huge step forward with the formation of Namati. Led by Vivek Maru, Namati has pooled the expertise of legal empowerment practitioners, academics, and grassroots groups to identify, evaluate, and implement innovative legal empowerment interventions and develop a network of global legal empowerment practitioners, the Legal Empowerment Network.
Thanks to valuable information gathered from the legal empowerment field, discussions about a fund to address the long-standing lack of resources finally resulted in a set of concrete commitments from major donors. The new Legal Empowerment Fund (LEF) – officially launched in 2021 by the Fund for Global Human Rights, the Mott and Hewlett Foundations, and Namati—aims to fuel the rise of a well-resourced and interconnected global movement of organisations, advocates, and communities that use legal empowerment strategies to close the justice gap and advance systemic change. Today, the LEF is the only initiative solely dedicated to supporting legal empowerment practitioners and bringing the strategy of community-level access to justice to scale.
But much more is necessary. Since the creation of the LEF last year, it’s only become clearer how significant the need for funding is. When we issued our first open call for proposals earlier this year, we received more than 4,800 applications from 153 countries.
Already, we’ve made our first grant to a group working on the front lines of a crisis to connect real people with access to justice. In Ukraine, the Legal Development Network—the LEF’s first grantee—provides critical humanitarian and legal assistance. We will also be providing resources to 50 organizations globally working on a wide range of issues from climate, land, and environmental justice to the empowerment of women and girls. Among the legal empowerment activists we’ll be funding are a Congolese youth group defending the rights of juveniles in Brazzaville and trans-led feminist organization in Montenegro advocating for legal gender recognition.
The applications have shown us that there are thousands of groups and organizations providing access to justice for marginalized populations, but they are doing so in a piecemeal manner due to the lack of resources. The history of the human rights movement has made it clear that piecemeal solutions do not lead to structural change. Legal empowerment groups need reliable, long-term, flexible funding to pursue their initiatives. Only then, with enough support directly in the hands of grassroots justice activists, can marginalized and vulnerable communities develop and implement their own sustainable solutions to inequality and injustice.
That’s because justice – and access to it – underpins all the different issues that human rights activists work on, from climate change and land rights to discrimination based on race, gender, or sexual orientation. Injustice is at the centre of all these problems. And legal empowerment is the root of any real solution.
Right now, we have a remarkable opportunity to water these roots. By providing resources to grassroots organizations and activists on the front lines, we can start to expand access to justice – and close the global justice gap.
Atieno Odhiambo is the director of the Legal Empowerment Fund.