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Evaluating Legal Empowerment: An Initial Guide

How do we know whether the work we are doing is doing any good?  This is a core concern of many fields, not least international efforts to reduce poverty or build open societies.  But this question is especially salient for the relatively new field of legal empowerment. An increasing focus on using legal empowerment approaches to benefit the disadvantaged has generated growing interest in identifying tools and methods to ascertain the impact of these programs.

Over the years I have had many discussions with a diverse array of colleagues, ranging from rural NGO personnel working with impoverished women to World Bank officials in that organization’s headquarters. Most seem eager to better grasp or present what their or others’ legal empowerment work might be accomplishing. Drawing on these conversations, my recent paper, “Legal Empowerment Evaluation: An Initial Guide to Issues, Methods and Impact,” aims to provide an overview of evaluation in the broader field of development, suggest practical ways to measure the effectiveness of legal empowerment, and describe actual impacts of past and present LE programs.

I have prepared this paper as someone who does not specialize in evaluation, for similar non-specialists.  The main intended audiences for the paper are persons who are legal empowerment practitioners and donor personnel working with them. More broadly, the audiences include NGO staff members that carry out the bulk of legal empowerment work around the world, officials of agencies that fund legal empowerment, government personnel supportive of this work, and other groups and individuals concerned with it. Accordingly, the paper starts with a discussion of legal empowerment and background on important evaluation considerations and challenges in the development field.

Overall societal change is certainly worth assessing. But the impact of any given organization, initiative, project or program is far more granular.

In the second part of the paper, you will find several examples of legal empowerment programs. This section reviews both the programs’ implementation and their impact – including the research methods used for each evaluation. Read about the work and impact of an NGO, staffed primarily by paralegals, in Sierra Leone that facilitates dispute resolution and provides basic justice services. Explore the multiple methodologies used in the Philippines to show the contribution of paralegals in helping farmers benefit from the country’s agrarian reform law. Examine how legal information and services can be integrated into socioeconomic development efforts and how that integration has been researched, with examples from Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Senegal.

As the analysis unfolds in this paper, it will become evident that the kinds of methodologies and impact discussed here reflect a theory of change about what can be done to promote economic, social and political progress. Most approaches to legal empowerment take the modest but realistic view that change is not often linear or subject to foreign influence and funding.  They instead see it accruing in various ways, sometimes unpredictable (as in the Arab Spring). Overall societal change is certainly worth assessing. But the impact of any given organization, initiative, project or program is far more granular.  This paper addresses that kind of legal empowerment impact.

The Legal Empowerment Evaluation Guide is available in the Tools Database, here.

More information on legal empowerment initiatives, evaluation and impact, along with other resources relevant to international development, can be found at my website: www.stephengolub.org.


Stephen Golub is an adjunct law professor, consultant and attorney with over 25 years of international experience regarding legal empowerment and international development evaluation, as well as related fields. He coined the term “legal empowerment” in co-authoring the Asian Development Bank study (2001) that first articulated the concept.


June 25, 2012 | Steve Golub


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