At the Open Society Foundations we believe strongly in the importance of the rule of law, which guarantees the rights of the individual. But justice requires the law must also be available to everyone, no matter their economic or social position, an objective that we have embraced since we were founded in the early 1990s. These efforts now include supporting Namati, a new group focused on this issue of what the development and legal community call legal empowerment. Vivek Maru, chief executive officer of Namati, discusses what the group hopes to achieve as it launches a new website aimed at bringing together groups from around the world working on grassroots justice.
First, Vivek, give us some background. When we talk about “legal empowerment,” what does that mean?
Over the past year people have taken to the streets at a scale not seen for two decades: the Arab spring, anticorruption rallies in India, Occupy demonstrations in the United States, pro-democracy protests in Russia, Hungary, Malawi, and elsewhere. All these movements share a fundamental aspiration: that law and government should be palpable earth in people’s hands, not abstractions sealed in books or courtrooms. For us, legal empowerment is about finding concrete ways of realizing that dream.
In Sierra Leone we are building a national network of community paralegals who can assist citizens in achieving practical remedies to breaches of rights. We are also experimenting with ways of ensuring that communities in Sierra Leone have a greater say in the provision of essential services like healthcare and education.
In Mozambique, Liberia, and Uganda, we’re working with partners to implement community land titling procedures, and to strengthen systems for local natural resource governance. In India, we are exploring ways of incorporating more genuine community participation into the regulation of coastal eco-systems.
We are evaluating each of these efforts rigorously. We aim for the learning from these experiments to inform practice worldwide.
The new website Namati.org is designed to be the focus of a network of existing groups involved in grassroots justice projects. How will that work?
When someone starts a health program—a rural hospital, for example—there is a wealth of resources from which to draw: treatment protocols, primary health worker manuals, detailed research findings on which strategies are most effective in which contexts.
Legal empowerment lacks an analogous global conversation. Many legal empowerment programs work in isolation, and often have to invent their own wheels. Through the network we hope to deepen dialogue and collaboration among legal empowerment practitioners across borders.
This is how it works: we invite individuals and organizations to create a profile, which gives access to the website and the ability to connect with other members and form sub-groups on specific themes or regions.
There is a tools database through which practitioners can share practical resources: a paralegal training manual, a case management system, a strategy for confronting police abuse. Members can also share evidence on both successes and failures.
Over the next few months, we will be releasing toolkits curated by experts on specific topics within legal empowerment, like the right to information, state recognition of paralegals, and gender-based violence.
Communities that have disputes with multinational corporations often struggle to obtain justice within their own national legal systems. We plan to develop an online mechanism to connect such communities with pro bono counsel in countries where the companies have substantial operations.
We are also holding a series of regional meetings; the next one, in Dhaka in April, focuses on methods for evaluating the impact of legal empowerment efforts.
Ultimately it is the members who will bring the network to life. We hope it will reflect the dynamism and creativity of the legal empowerment work that we see in the field, everywhere we travel.
Tell us a little about yourself, and how you became involved in this work.
I wrote my college thesis on Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. Afterward I spent a year in India, hoping to learn about the surviving legacy of Gandhian social action. I lived in a hut of dung and sticks in Kutch, a remote, arid district in the western corner of the country and my native place. I worked on girls’ education and watershed development with two grassroots organizations, Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangethan and Sahjeevan.
Then I went to study law, and I nearly dropped out in the initial months. Lawyering seemed incompatible with the Gandhian perspective. Gandhi’s approach aims for reconciliation and transformation; lawyers seemed to conceive of conflicts in narrow, adversarial terms. And while Gandhi valued the constructive process of building more democratic, more humane institutions, the law seemed reactive: something bad happens, and then the lawyers show up, talking about justice.
But I hung in there. A couple years after graduating I moved to Sierra Leone. It was 2003, soon after the end of the 11-year civil war. There was a consensus that arbitrariness in governance and maladministration of justice were among the root causes of the war, and a desire among emerging civil society organizations to provide some sort of direct assistance to citizens who face injustice in their daily lives. But it was an open question what that assistance should look like, given the plural legal system—with only a hundred lawyers in the country, and more than ninety of them in the capital Freetown—and the damaged social infrastructure.
With Simeon Koroma, I co-founded an organization, Timap for Justice, to try to experiment towards an answer. We trained a frontline of community paralegals in basic law and in tools like mediation, advocacy, education, and organizing.
It was during those years, living in Sierra Leone and working with Timap, that I began to believe that a synthesis was possible between the law and a Gandhian approach to social action. At their best, Timap paralegals draw on both traditional and modern law to generate creative, practical solutions to the problems people face. And a system of community paralegals can contribute constructively to a more peaceful, more democratic social landscape.
Namati builds on that trajectory of work in Sierra Leone. We also hope to take forward recommendations from the United Nations Commission on Legal Empowerment, which called for an expansion of the field. We are thrilled that three of the commissioners have joined our advisory council—Fazle Abed, Madeline Albright, Fernando Cardozo—along with four other leaders who have also contributed enormously to the field: Helen Clark, Mo Ibrahim, Amartya Sen, and George Soros.
The network grows out of two years of discussions among legal empowerment practitioners, convened with the help of the Open Society Justice Initiative and the World Bank's Justice for the Poor Program. The network is guided by a committee of fourteen respected practitioners from fourteen different countries.
We also have generous financial support from Open Society Foundations, the UK's Department for International Development, AusAid, and the United Nations Development Program.
So what does the name mean?
Namati is a Sanskrit word with two meanings: “to bow” and “to shape something into a curve.” The first meaning is about reverence. The second meaning evokes the idea of transformation, as in this prophesy from Martin Luther King Jr.: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” We hope to be guided by both these principles.