Rule of Law Can Rid the World of Poverty

Poverty will only be defeated when the law works for everyone.

The following originally appeared in the Financial Times.

Poverty is on the retreat. Despite the global economic downturn, the World Bank and UN reported this year that the number of people living in extreme poverty has dropped in every region of the world for the first time since record keeping began. Though progress on the UN’s Millennium Development Goals has been uneven, we should be heartened that we have already reached, three years before the target date of 2015, the first of these eight goals—that of halving the number of people still living on less than $1 a day. However, we risk allowing these gains to come undone if we fail to strengthen the rule of law in developing countries.

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?

Tens of millions of people live without a legal form of identity, such as a birth certificate. This identity is the cornerstone of justice. Without it, one may be denied opportunities to overcome poverty, including access to immunisations, school, land deeds and welfare. One of the first MDG 2.0 targets… should be reducing statelessness and providing universal legal identity: the enactment and enforcement of legislation ensuring every citizen has universal access to a documented legal identity and is registered at birth.

But legislation is not enough, which is why the second and third targets should concern awareness and access. In developed countries, even those accused of heinous crimes are apprised of their legal rights, and rightfully so. Yet the vast majority of people living in poverty do not even know their rights. Governments must implement concrete measures, or enable civil society to do so, making sure the poor are fully aware of rights under the law.

The targets must include safeguards and regulations to ensure that everybody, regardless of background or circumstances, has full access to the formal justice system. Special attention should also be given to women, as well as to vulnerable groups such as the landless, slum dwellers, sex workers, pre-trial prisoners and juvenile offenders. In many places, laws exist on paper to protect the vulnerable from exploitation, yet informal norms and institutions hold sway, and all too often, these norms and institutions work against the poor and vulnerable, women especially. Where the formal legal system is itself corrupt, there should also be mechanisms such as alternative dispute resolution, which work to provide justice outside the courts.

These need not be costly solutions. We have already seen how they might work in places such as Bangladesh, where civil society organisations like BRAC have strengthened the legal rights of the poor by training thousands of “barefoot lawyers” in poor communities.

Events in Tahrir Square and beyond have sparked optimism about a global democratic resurgence. But at the same time, there is fear of instability and lawlessness. Let us not forget that in 2015, 1 billion people will still be living in extreme poverty. A hard road still lies ahead. 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.

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This is quite an interesting piece. Id like more information on the 'barefoot lawyers'. How do they work? with the govt or independently? Any links or books will be appreciated.

Thanks for asking. We love talking about this subject. To begin, you could watch the "Grassroots Justice" videos on this site...which provide a good overview of the kind of work paralegals do...start with this one, which provides a good overview:

I'd also recommend visiting - Namati is setting up a global network of these small legal empowerment groups, in order to share and learn about what works and what doesn't.

In general, paralegals can be particularly helpful if the government recognises a formal role for them in the justice system, so they can work alongside lawyers and get access to police stations, courts and so on. Sierra Leone has just passed a new legal aid law that would enable that. But they can also do a lot just through telling peole what their rights are. The UNDP also has a good site that gives some great examples of paralegals at work.

If you search under "legal empowerment" on this site you should also find quite a view "Voices" pieces that give more information, plus some publications and manuals aimed at helping paralegals get set up.

Best wishes, Jonathan Birchall, Communications, Open Society Foundations

BRAC of Bangladesh is continously claiming that they are Not-For-Profit development organization. But the fact is BRAC has invested billions of US Dollars in very much profitable commercial ventures. Now, BRAC has 22 commercial enterprises those are directly competeting with the General Businesses in Bangladesh. As the largest PVDO of the world, BRAC has been receiving huge funds from the donor countries and organization, so they have the strength to invest money but the general business people in Bangladesh are really in funding problem. So, such unethical competition make these general businesses looser and BRAC is gradually becoming as the largest conglomerate in Bangladesh.

As Not-For-Profit development organization, BRAC should do good to the poor people but unfortunately Sir Fazle Hasan Abed forgot his mendate and started making money over the fate of the unfortunate poor people of Bangladesh.


this makes sense.

however, where i live, poverty is not on the retreat. govt policy and systemic pressures let benefits trickle down too slow and too late for many people.
Garib Hatao (eliminate the poor - in hindi) has replaced Garibi Hatao (eliminate Poverty) as the slogan of our times...

Very Interesting article. I am always nervous when the first thing mentioned of overcoming poverty is mentioning access to vaccination ( just because you get a vaccine does not mean you are automatically immune!!!). I believe to overcome poverty people need to have access to healthy - non Monsanto - food sources so their immune system will get stronger so they have the ability to create a better future for themselves. Poor people need a hand up and the belief they can help themselves. Look at Cuba and what happened after the Russians left.


"A legally empowered citizenry is both the guarantor and lifeblood of democracy."

Is it? I thought that freedom of the press was the guarantor and lifeblood of democracy.

How do citizens get to learn of legal rights? Through news media. Who protects citizens as they exert their legal rights, often against powerful interests? The news media. Who can citizens trust to independently assess programmes like this one? More than any other estate or institute, for most people, it's the news media.

Unfortunately, the fourth estate has been in serious decline, ever since Watergate days when news media were identified by big business as an obstacle to their agendas.

Today, decades of media mergers and acquisitions have resulted in a profession that is beyond crisis, with tens of thousands sacked in the last few years alone - just in the US.

Hard for citizens to be confident and well informed about their legal rights when their main source of support and information is crumbling away by the day.


Ja sam Rom iz R.Srbije.Imam fakultet muzicke umetnosti. Nastavnik sam romskog jezika sa elementima nacionalne kulture. Imam sertifikat Saveta Evrope za sirenje i razvoj kulture. Imam ženu i troje dece.Nemam stan,kuću,tesko zivim. Mnogo intelektualno radim (živim u Zemunu /Beograd, radim u Vojvodiniu Novom Sadu, u Beočinu. Zbog resavanja problema Roma u civilnom društvu osnovao sam svoj Centar za afirmaciju i Integraciju Roma koji se prvenstveno želi baviti inkluzijom u obrazovanju kako bi smanjili siromaštvo. Medjutim nemamo osnovna financijsk sredstva da razvijamo naše aktivnosti. Pitanje je; kome da se obratim kako bih pormenio tesko socijalno stanje Roma do kojih ne stižu donatorka sredstva i koji su na papiru unapredjeni au praksi u sve dubljoj bezizlaznoj rupi.
Hvala Vam na odgovoru.
Moja adresa je Ismet Jasarevic ,Vojni Put 1-289,11080,Zemun -Beograd,R.Srbija

Dear Monsieur Soros,
"the rule of law, poverty will be defeated when the law works for every one" You have all my total respect for the whole article as i agree with every one of your words including: "legislation is not enough!" This is why change should be "NEGOCIATED" better than fought (while i am aware that certain circumstances too long to expose should lawfully be taken care by your efficient philisophy) this being said i believe that to advance faster in change we need a valid example.....i have to come back to my idea of sincere cooperation with Chavez and Castro... even within the US-Cuba embargo the cooperation of Cuba-Venezuela proves to be a success and if we accept the idea of future fair negotiations for better change for both parties, we need to negotiate directly with governments who need our help ready to also respond to a need we have: "FAIR RECIPROCITY WORKS"
A philanthropy combined with a futuristic constructive views that benefits both parties for a "SUSTAINABLE" evolution of societies. There is no doubt that industrial countries need underdeveloped countries for more than one strategic reason-whether-resource-business development-sea ports-air-ports-road-communications and other more modern communications and new technologies in many fields......
Politics is playing hide and seek with statistics and inefficient complicated solutions that lead to conflict of interest and wars.....just watch the frustration of global occupy wall street all over the world...its a powerful contestation with no leader....interesting to think about leader!!!.....for now....Open society can be that leader...... If we sincerely want progress and not domination of the helpless we have to prove we can sincerely be both a friend and a fair business partner with those countries.... Today Venezuela receives huge intellectual help from Cuba in education-health, culture and Arts in exchange of oil(shall we say oil nationalized for a human purpose, playing Zoro taking from the rich to give to the poor)not very honest ...but which war, invasion or colonialism is honest???
Yes Cuba is now very endebted to Venezuela but its a friendly cooperation austerity program for the helpless on the contrary....better sustainable lives...for all... Latin america, Africa even China are very interested by this module of cooperation....."FAIR EXCHANGE" these countries have the potential to open new doors to new solar and wind energy....and maybe later space free energy soon maybe a reality. (see nasa reports)....encouraging new technologies to develop in a constant friendly environment benefiting all. I say forgive a debt is an open door and better than an economic crash and spending billions on wars and sacrificed lives........ a shift to a new concept within a new possible economic reform. Claire Costom

Great post. I am always concerned with all of the media coverage of how our economic conditions are at an all time low. It is great to know that poverty is actually decreasing.

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