Action research projects led by Network members across Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia are taking up key questions of the learning agenda. These projects are centering the leadership of communities and linking learning directly to struggles for justice. By combining research and program experimentation, the projects will generate powerful insights on how legal empowerment strategies can build community power, increase participation of marginalized groups in decision-making, and advance changes to laws and institutions that deepen democratic and inclusive governance.
Advancing Structural Legal Aid to Respond to New Challenges in Indonesia
Organization: Indonesia Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI)
YLBHI is critically examining their innovative ‘structural legal aid’ approach to adapt it to emerging challenges in Indonesia like populism, extremism, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since 1970, the Indonesia Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI) has developed and used a pioneering method that combines legal reform, strategic impact litigation, community legal empowerment, public campaigns, and mobilization to advance significant structural changes in Indonesia. This has led to major successes, including the enactment of fair trial principles, the recognition of access to legal aid, the introduction of class action lawsuits, and political reforms that ultimately ended the New Order dictatorship. In recent years, Indonesia has experienced a number of new challenges to democratic governance and public accountability, including shrinking civic space, the rise of populism, transnational extremism, political and economic oligarchs, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Through this project, YLBHI will critically examine the impact of their innovative ‘structural legal aid’ approach in order to adapt it as needed to address emerging challenges. Case studies in four regions of Indonesia focus on a range of justice challenges including labor rights, education rights, land and environmental injustices, and freedom of association. Each case study explores the factors that contribute to the success or failure of strategic litigation and popular mobilization. The goal is to develop innovative methods to advance structural reform in response to modern human rights challenges in Indonesia.
Advancing Refugee Protection and Promoting Accountability in Southeast Asia through Legal Empowerment and Refugee Leadership
Organizations: Asylum Access Thailand, Chulalongkorn University, Refugees & Asylum seekers Information Centre
Asylum Access and its partners are experimenting with ways legal empowerment strategies that center the leadership of refugees can be used to implement new legal protections and drive systemic changes that advance refugee rights.
Most of Asia’s 3.5 million refugees and asylum seekers face exclusion and structural barriers on a daily basis due to a lack of legal status. They experience arbitrary detention, gender-based violence, economic exploitation, and limited access to justice. Asylum Access works to end these harms by using legal empowerment strategies like individual representation, group education, and community organizing to do what other humanitarian and development approaches alone cannot: challenge the root causes of exclusion that leave refugees at risk. Asylum Access has already gained important policy victories. In Thailand, they led civil society efforts to advocate for a 2019 law that protects refugees from detention and deportation.
Through this project, Asylum Access, in collaboration with Chulalongkorn University and Refugees & Asylum seekers Information Centre will test various strategies that seek to improve access to legal status, work rights, justice, and other forms of protection. The goal is to identify and improve the impact of a variety of refugee legal empowerment approaches and build on existing refugee-led initiatives and best practices across different contexts. This work will support refugees to know, use and ultimately, shape laws, policies and practices.
Empowering Grassroots Communities to Drive Collective Action to Bridge the Access to Justice Gap in Southeast Asia
Countries: Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia
Organizations: Alternative Law Groups (ALG), Community Resource Centre Foundation, Indonesia Judicial Research Society
ALG and its partners are studying how community paralegals, strategic litigation, and support to policy reform processes contribute to empowering poor and marginalized communities in Southeast Asia to claim their rights and take collective action to advance environmental and gender justice.
Across Southeast Asia, poor and marginalized populations face a series of justice gaps. Women and children, labor unions, peasant and fisherfolk communities, the urban poor, indigenous peoples, the LGBT community, and persons living with HIV-AIDS are among the affected groups who experience additional obstacles to civic engagement and participation in reforms. Alternative Law Groups (ALG), a coalition of 18 legal empowerment organizations in the Philippines, adheres to the principles and values of “developmental law” or “alternative lawyering” to confront these justice gaps. Developmental law seeks to empower poor and marginalized populations through the creative use of the law, while supporting efforts to bring about systemic justice reforms.
Through this project, ALG is collaborating with the Community Resource Centre Foundation in Thailand and the Indonesia Judicial Research Society to study the impact of developmental law approaches through comparative experiences across the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia. Their research focuses on three approaches: the use of community paralegals, strategic litigation, and support to policy reform processes. They are examining how these approaches have contributed to empowering poor and marginalized communities to claim their rights and take collective action to advance environmental and gender justice. Specifically, they want to understand the role of grassroots communities in addressing justice gaps and driving systemic reform. Their research will highlight best practices, develop an important body of evidence on what works, and help improve the effectiveness of civil society organizations in the region that are using legal empowerment to address pressing justice challenges.
Using Legal Empowerment Approaches to Address Police Abuse in Malawi
Organizations: Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC); Centre for Human Rights Education, Advice and Assistance (CHREAA)
SALC and CHREAA are studying the police encounters of people from diverse socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds in order to understand the system that results in police abuse and the effectiveness of various legal empowerment approaches to stem this abuse.
In Malawi, arbitrary arrests by the police target the so-called “undesirable elements of society”, including sex workers, vendors, children who live and work on the streets, persons who beg, and persons with disabilities. These individuals are frequently arrested and charged on various grounds, such as being ‘idle and disorderly’, ‘soliciting for an immoral purpose’, being a ‘rogue’ or ‘vagabond’, loitering, and breach of the peace. Use of arbitrary arrests to target vulnerable and poor communities is a violation of human rights.
Through this project, the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) and the Centre for Human Rights Education, Advice and Assistance (CHREAA) are exploring two main questions: (1) How can legal empowerment approaches help translate grassroots efforts to address police abuse in Malawi into improvements in broader law, policies, and institutional practice? (2) How do legal empowerment approaches combine legal strategies with organizing and other forms of collective action to address impunity for police abuse? The goal is to empower the community to know when their rights are being violated, to document and report such abuses, and to demand that abuses be addressed by public institutions. They hope to create a system in which the police are fair and friendly to the community, and the community has confidence that the police will protect them.
Grassroots Legal Empowerment and Social Movements Partner to Close the Justice Gap for the Urban Poor in West Africa
Countries: Nigeria, Benin
Organizations: Justice & Empowerment Initiatives (JEI), the Nigerian Slum/Informal Settlement Federation, the Physically Challenged Empowerment Initiative in Nigeria, and the Fédération D‘habitants des Zones de Taudis / Bidonvilles au Bénin
JEI and its partners are exploring how legal empowerment strategies and urban-poor social movements can most effectively work together to tackle the justice issues that contribute to the cycle of poverty in West Africa, such as forced evictions and criminalization of informal livelihoods.
Across West Africa, high poverty rates, rapid urbanization, and tenuous democracy make growing cities a major site of confrontations over land and economic development. Urban poor populations are at the forefront of these confrontations, dealing with such challenges as forced evictions, criminalization of the informal economy, and discrimination against migrants. Millions of people have been forcibly evicted from their homes in this region over the past two decades, contributing to the cycle of poverty and resulting in violations of their rights to shelter, health, education, and other fundamental protections.
Justice & Empowerment Initiatives (JEI) has been addressing this problem for nearly a decade by training and supporting an innovative inter-city network of community paralegals serving hundreds of urban poor communities in Lagos and Port Harcourt, Nigeria, and Cotonou, Benin. Through this project, JEI and its grassroots social movement partners, the Nigerian Slum/Informal Settlement Federation, the Physically Challenged Empowerment Initiative in Nigeria, and the Fédération D‘habitants des Zones de Taudis / Bidonvilles au Bénin, are exploring how legal empowerment strategies and urban-poor social movements can most effectively work together to tackle the justice issues that contribute to the cycle of poverty. In the particular cultural and political context of West Africa, the project seeks to understand the root causes of the greatest justice challenges facing the urban poor, aiming to find and generate compelling evidence for policy makers to adopt policy approaches that better balance the rights of the urban poor and the development needs of cities. The research will involve “learning by doing” through the evolution and documentation of JEI’s inter-city paralegal network. It will also gather evidence of how specific justice challenges contribute to the “poverty trap” and will model the costs of development to the broader society. The knowledge generated will empower transformative grassroots-led advocacy. The goal is to help empower vulnerable groups to claim their rights and participate in public decision making, while also strengthening the efforts of social movements and legal empowerment practitioners in the region.
Deepening the Impact of Legal Empowerment Programmes in Africa
Countries: Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Zambia
Organizations: Kituo Cha Sheria, Legal Aid Forum in Rwanda, Zambia’s Paralegal Alliance Network, and the African Centre of Excellence for Access to Justice
Kituo and its partners are assessing the efficacy of legal empowerment programs in Africa in overcoming exclusion, inequality, and injustice, with a focus on the paralegal approach and digital justice.
In East Africa, paralegalism and access to justice are evolving fields. Strategies like legal advice by refugee-trained paralegals, human rights education, and community mobilizing by civil society organizations have helped to empower local groups and communities, including minorities, to secure their rights. Kituo Cha Sheria is the longest and most experienced legal aid and empowerment organization in Kenya. But despite the existence of legal aid programs, there is still a substantial gap in access to justice for many people, particularly poor and marginalized groups.
Through this project, Kituo Cha Sheria will partner with the Legal Aid Forum in Rwanda, Zambia’s Paralegal Alliance Network, and the African Centre of Excellence for Access to Justice to assess the efficacy of legal empowerment programs, specifically focusing on the paralegal approach and digital justice in Kenya, Rwanda, and Zambia. This includes the use of technology within the justice sector during the COVID-19 pandemic and the effects of formalizing paralegals through recognition, training, accreditation, and financing. The other aspect of the research involves evaluating the impact of legal empowerment programming in Kenya in improving access to justice for communities. The project will analyze how programs are transforming the lives of communities, particularly marginalized and vulnerable ones, and how they are bringing about structural change to the justice system. It will identify gaps and recommend new strategies for fostering transformative systemic change in order to improve the efficacy of legal empowerment programs in overcoming exclusion, inequality, and injustice. The ultimate goal is to not only inspire change in attitudes and practices among public, state, and non-state actors, but also to inform future innovation and strategy on legal empowerment across East Africa.
Preventative Action to Strengthen Community Rights in the Context of Land-Based Investments
Countries: Uganda, Cameroon
Organizations: Centre pour l’Environnement et le Développement, the Land and Equity Movement in Uganda (LEMU), and the International Institute for Environment and Development
This project is studying how preventative legal empowerment support and conflict resolution strategies can help rural communities ensure their land rights are respected, prevent negative impacts from land-based investments, and play a more proactive role in land governance.
For the past decade, foreign investments in land and agriculture (for mining, logging, infrastructure, agro-industries, and conservation purposes) have increased in Africa. The huge scale of land acquisitions across the region has led to numerous injustices and conflicts. Currently, the main approaches to investment-related rights violations in the field of land and environmental justice in Uganda and Cameroon are reactive. Legal empowerment is usually provided after lives have been lost, property destroyed, local waters and soils polluted, and communities devastated. Reactive legal empowerment has a limited chance of restoring the damage caused. Building on learning from past initiatives in Cameroon and Uganda, this project proposes a shift. It aims to preventively address conflicts before violations occur.
Through this project, the Centre pour l’Environnement et le Développement in Cameroon, the Land and Equity Movement in Uganda, and the International Institute for Environment and Development in the UK will study how preventative legal empowerment support and conflict resolution strategies can help rural communities in Cameroon and Uganda ensure that their land rights are respected, that their communities do not suffer the negative impacts of land-based investments (in particular increased displacement, injustice, environmental degradation, impoverishment, and human rights abuses), and that they can play a more proactive role in democratic, inclusive governance of land and land-based investments. Rapid response and early warning hotlines will allow communities to seek legal empowerment assistance as soon as they feel their rights are at risk. They will map conflict hotspots to help the community identify areas facing potential land/resource conflicts and provide preventative conflict resolution support. Finally, they will monitor companies’ compliance with legal and contractual obligations. This work will develop innovative approaches to strengthen the ability of rural people, particularly women and other vulnerable groups, to protect their rights in the face of land-based investments.
Uprooting Injustices and Establishing Formal Linkages for Inclusive, Integrated African Cities
Countries: Kenya, Zambia
Organizations: Akiba Mashinani Trust (AMT), Muungano wa Wanavijiji Alliance, Strathmore University, University of Nairobi, People’s Process on Housing and Poverty in Zambia
AMT and its partners are studying the root causes blocking access to inclusive basic services and infrastructure in informal settlements, as well as the particular challenges that hinder the participation of women and other vulnerable groups in decision-making.
In Nairobi, Kenya and Kitwe, Zambia, long-standing land tenure questions have hindered urban planning and the provision of affordable housing and services in informal settlements. Insecure land tenure results in inequitable land distribution. In Kenya, land is concentrated in the hands of the elite few who possess the tools for resource capture, so public land is largely inaccessible to the poor. Zambia faces unsustainable rural-urban migration. Poor access to services creates acute risks of insecurity for women and girls and denies them their dignity. Over the last decade, there have been efforts to stem the deep inequality and exclusion in Nairobi’s informal settlements. Akiba Mashinani Trust, in collaboration with Muungano wa Wanavijiji Alliance, Strathmore University, and the University of Nairobi, have succeeded in getting the Mukuru settlement in Nairobi declared a special planning area (SPA)–a transformational model to spur redevelopment through collaboration between local government and the community.
Now, together with People’s Process on Housing and Poverty in Zambia, this project brings together grassroots movements, local authorities, universities, and civil society organizations to co-produce knowledge needed to achieve inclusive and equitable change in informal settlements. It seeks to understand the root causes blocking access to inclusive basic services and infrastructure, as well as the particular challenges that hinder the participation of women and other vulnerable groups in decision-making. The research will identify options for overcoming land tenure impediments, document lessons from the implementation of Mukuru SPA, generate new data and based on that, develop an integrated local area plan for the Ipusukilo settlement in Kitwe, Zambia. Urban poor communities will play a crucial role in planning and data collection to ensure the research is responsive to their needs.
Collective Action for Protecting Community Lands in Chile from Exploitation by the Salmon Industry
Organization: Fiscalía del Medio Ambiente (FIMA)
FIMA is exploring ways to create an alliance between communities affected by the exploitation of the salmon industry in Chile as they demand their rights to access information and participate in decision-making, and organize collectively against the exploitation of the salmon industry.
Magallanes, the southernmost and largest region of Chile, contains the largest number of protected wildlife areas in the country. Salmon farming, one of the country’s most powerful industries, has been expanding in the region. However, salmon farming has significant environmental and social impacts: it endangers the environmental integrity of the areas where it is developed and threatens the cultural heritage and traditional economic activities of local communities. Fiscalía del Medio Ambiente (FIMA) has been working closely with the communities of Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas for more than a decade to provide legal support and implement empowerment strategies to combat these harms.
Through this project, FIMA is exploring ways to create an alliance between the Kawesqar indigenous peoples and urban residents of Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas as they demand their rights to access information and participate in decision-making, and organize collectively against the exploitation of the salmon industry. FIMA wants to answer questions like: (1) How is collective organizing complementing other strategies to address environmental conflicts? (2) How are communities in Magallanes using available mechanisms to protect their rights, and which strategies have been more successful? (3) How can women’s inclusion be expanded? (4) What connections do communities see between their resistance to industrial activities and climate? (5) How can the process of building collective power to resist the salmon industry help communities face other threatening industries? At the heart of these efforts, FIMA will be advocating for greater participation of affected communities, especially women, in environmental decision-making, as well as measures to strengthen local communities in their environmental defense processes.
Enhancing Public Participation and Community Solidarity for Urban Redevelopment in Argentina’s Matanza Riachuelo River Basin
Organization: Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia (ACIJ)
ACIJ is working with residents of informal settlements to help them implement the commitments from positive court rulings and to empower them to realize their social, environmental, and economic rights and ask for greater participation in decision-making processes.
The Matanza Riachuelo River Basin is one of Argentina’s most polluted waterways. Four to five million people live in the basin region, with 10% of them living in informal settlements. Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia (ACIJ) has been working with communities in the basin for over 14 years and has supported groundbreaking court cases defending communities’ rights. In 2008, a critical Supreme Court case ruled that residents have a right to a healthy environment and mandated the cleanup and redevelopment of the river basin. More recently, other judicial rulings have recognized the communities’ right to participate in decision-making. These cases and resulting changes to governance of the river basin have the potential to set a precedent for future cases of urban redevelopment and resettlement for communities in environmental hazard areas.
ACIJ is working with residents of two informal settlements–Villa Inflamable and Villa 21-24–to help realize the commitments of the court rulings. This project allows ACIJ to continue this work, with an ultimate goal of empowering residents to realize their social, environmental, and economic rights and ask for greater participation in decision-making processes. The research involves studying (1) the most effective legal empowerment strategies to address rights violations; (2) how interrelated social, economic, and cultural rights can be used to advance environmental justice; (3) how to navigate the tensions between community demands and environmental restoration; (4) the roles played by the different levels and branches of the state; and (5) how legal empowerment approaches can be targeted to meet the needs of women and LGBTQ+ groups and increase their inclusion in public participation processes. ACIJ’s work centers knowledge sharing between communities. Bringing together communities and creating a space for them to exchange experiences will help residents demand that governing institutions provide more integrated, standardized, and equitable responses along the basin.
Preventative Strategies for Protecting Indigenous Land from Dispossession and Environmental Degradation in the Yucatán Peninsula
Organization: Proyecto de Derechos Económicos, Sociales y Culturales (ProDESC)
ProDESC is testing key strategies to improve their preventative approach to land protection and to suggest pathways that indigenous and agrarian communities can use to prevent dispossession of their land, ensure robust implementation of free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC), and promote development models that respect their ways of life and protect the environment.
The Yucatán Peninsula is one of the most biodiverse regions in Mexico and is home to more than one million Mayan indigenous people. Internal migration and the tourism industry have led to a construction boom, causing environmental degradation and dispossession of community lands. Even though they are the most affected by this commercial development, Mayan communities have been the least consulted in decision-making, resulting in violations of their rights to participation and to free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC). Proyecto de Derechos Económicos, Sociales y Culturales (ProDESC) uses a preventative approach to land protection by stopping projects from being built without community participation and consent. They have already achieved a cornerstone victory by working with the indigenous community of Unión Hidalgo to prevent the construction of what would have been the largest wind park in Latin America. They are now working with six indigenous and agrarian communities in the Yucatán Peninsula defending their land: Dziuché, Bulukax, X-Calakoop, La Presumida, Kantemó, and Santa Gertrudis.
Through this project, ProDESC will test key strategies to improve their preventative approach and to suggest pathways that these communities can use to prevent dispossession of their land, ensure robust implementation of FPIC, and promote alternative development models that respect their ways of life and protect the environment. They will combine multiple approaches, including legal education and accompaniment, building collective power, and advocacy campaigns at a local and national level. In particular, ProDESC wants to understand: (1) how strategies to dispossess communities from their land have evolved, (2) the most useful legal empowerment strategies for defending communities, (3) how to build collective power, (4) womens’ roles in community organizing and the defense of resources, and (5) communities’ vision for the development and management of their land. Their ultimate goal is to ensure that no projects that harm local communities and restrict their opportunities for self-determined development are implemented.
The Legal Empowerment Network serves as the knowledge hub for this initiative. In collaboration with the regional hubs, Kituo Cha Sheria, Alternative Law Groups, and Justice & Empowerment Initiatives, we coordinate shared learning efforts across the projects, facilitate peer exchange, and support the synthesis of emerging knowledge.