UN report: Legal empowerment helps ameliorate poverty

Lloyd Axworthy , Winnipeg, Canada | Sat, 07/05/2008 12:21 PM | Opinion

Overshadowed by news of catastrophic food shortages in many parts of the world, natural disasters in Burma and China, and rising gas prices, was the release of a report by a United Nations-sponsored commission that offers a refreshing set of proposals to deal with the grinding reality of poverty, which afflicts two-thirds of the world’s population.

The report’s focus is not another call for more foreign aid, a demand for revision of trade policies or a radical push to foster confrontation between the developed and developing worlds. Rather, the report on The Legal Empowerment of The Poor makes the singular point that if the poor are empowered to exercise basic legal rights, they can and will be the agency of their own poverty reduction.

Full recognition of legal identity, assured access to the courts, basic labor protection, the right to own property and the rule of law to prevent exploitation by the powerful are vital tools to enable the poor to realize their full potential.

It seems obvious, doesn’t it? Except that there are four billion people around the world who are denied the rights, protections and opportunities afforded by the rule of law. In far too many countries, political, economic and social affairs are governed by policies and institutions that prevent the poor from participating on an equal playing field. For the majority of the world’s citizens, the rules of the game are fundamentally unfair.

Three years ago, the Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor brought together a group of thinkers, former senior government officials, scholars and jurists to address this problem. After much debate and analysis, and 22 consultations in developing countries in every region of the world, the commission developed a comprehensive framework for legal empowerment, focusing on women, indigenous peoples and other vulnerable groups, with four mutually reinforcing pillars: Access to justice and the rule of law, property rights, labor rights and business rights.

The scale of the problems is staggering.

More than 70 percent of children living in the world’s least-developed countries are without documentary proof of their existence. This puts them at greater risk for exploitation, impedes their access to health care and education and prevents them from fully participating as political, economic and social actors in society.

When I was the Organization of American States election co-ordinator in Peru in 2006, I was told by President Alejandro Toledo that two million Peruvians didn’t “exist.” They had no legal identity, which meant they had no chance of ever participating in the economic or political life of that country other than through an underground economy.

Then there are the beleaguered bureaucracies of countries such as India, where it appears there are just 11 judges for every million people; the Philippines, where judges average a 1,479-case backlog; and Kenya, where one million cases are awaiting trial.

The property of most of the world’s poor is not protected. Constantly at risk of being evicted without compensation, the poor are left with little incentive to invest in their land or develop a business. And the lands of indigenous peoples, who represent 5 percent of the total population yet account for 15 percent of the world’s poor, are often declared “public” or “unoccupied,” thus impeding their use for traditional or economic purposes.

Despite producing as much as 80 percent of food in developing countries, women own less than 10 percent of the world’s property. Empowering women with property rights would lead to a significant reduction in poverty and malnutrition.

Most of the world’s 500 million working poor — those earning less than US$1 a day — participate in the informal economy. This represents up to 90 percent of the workforce in some South Asian countries. In theory, these workers are entitled to basic rights and protections, but these rights are rarely recognized.

The working poor are extremely vulnerable to exploitation, do not receive employment benefits from state or employer, suffer poor working conditions and hold jobs that are never secure. And, because the world’s poor entrepreneurs operate unregistered businesses and do not hold title to the land they occupy, they are unable to increase productivity and profitability. Two billion people go without access to basic financial services.

The legal-empowerment agenda can have a profound impact on the global commitment to tackle poverty and advance human development through the Millennium Development Goals. In a foreword to the report, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown reiterated the MDG Call to Action and urged the international community to intensify efforts to make progress on the goals, pointing out that we have already passed the midway point on the timeline for meeting them, yet remain far from their fulfillment.

For instance, over a quarter of those living in southern Asia barely subsist at the very lowest economic levels, and children in the region continue to suffer from some of the highest rates of malnutrition in the world.

At its core, the legal-empowerment agenda is about unlocking human potential. By giving the poor access to legal protections such as property rights and security of tenure, labor rights and business rights, we allow them to get maximum value for their work, enabling them to lift themselves from the grips of poverty. The commission found many examples around the world where these protections spurred self-help, development and entrepreneurship.

These findings also carry a profound responsibility for the international community. As commission co-chairs Madeleine Albright and Hernando de Soto say in the report’s preface, “those who consider the poor to be just another part of the human condition are ignorant, for the poor do not accept it, and when given the chance, will seize the opportunity to transform their lives.”

This week on July 3, at the ASEAN Headquarters in Jakarta, the Commission has scheduled its Asia regional launch of the report. Our hope is that the findings of the Report will help to facilitate the promotion of legal rights as a key ingredient in development policy and poverty reduction not just in Asia but around the globe.

The writer, a former foreign affairs minister for Canada and the president and vice chancellor of the University of Winnipeg, served as a member of the Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor.

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