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Rule of Law Can Rid the World of Poverty

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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