This is an extract of a speech given by HRH Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan to a meeting of UN Ambassadors from the Middle East and North Africa in spring 2014. Prince Hassan was a member of the Commission on the Legal Empowerment of the Poor and is a signatory to the Justice 2015 Open Letter to the UN.

An Arabic version of the Open Letter can be downloaded here.

HRH 2By HRH Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan

Poverty reduction cannot merely be achieved through economic growth and improved trade alone.  As the work of the Commission on the Legal Empowerment of the Poor has consistently shown for the last decade, there are strong links between poverty, injustice and legal exclusion.

Today, over 4 billion people in the world are excluded from the legal system. This means that over half of the world’s population is not legally empowered to claim access to the most basic human rights that many of us take for granted – be it property rights, the right to earning a guaranteed minimum wage or the right to clean drinking water.

In the past, the relationship between law and development was narrowly focused on the law and state institutions. Over the last decade, the Commission has placed an emphasis on giving voice to the marginalized, by viewing them not as objects of a problem, but as people, as partners, and as part of the solution.

In the Arab world, the focus on legal empowerment has largely been overshadowed by pressing issues such as the conflict in Syria, environmental change and the impact of the global economic recession.  However, as the Arab Spring showed, the consequences of ignoring the voices of the marginalized can cause profound instability.

Often decision-makers resist legal empowerment on the grounds that this might aggravate instability. Legal empowerment must be promoted as a tool of conflict resistance and resilience – and not as a catalyst for revolution.

To address long-term development in a way that is authentic to the Arab world, countries in the region will need to break free from the practices of the past. They will need to view legal empowerment as a tool for conflict resistance (and not just for revolution), involve civil institutions in development discussions, and use a data-based approach to drive policy.  Ultimately, people need to view the law as a tool that works in their favor, and not something that needs to be overcome.

By excluding clauses related to justice and the rule of law, the first set of the MDGs were rendered ineffective in truly transforming the lives of the poorest and the most marginalized.  To combat poverty in a meaningful way, the post 2015 Global agenda needs to include legal empowerment as a key element of the development roadmap.

Why Is Legal Empowerment of the Poor Important?

Enabling people with access to justice is essential to combating poverty in a meaningful way:

  1. People can earn money and protect their livelihoods: The consequences of weak legal empowerment are practical and debilitating. When people cannot resolve their grievances in an equitable manner, they cannot run their businesses, own property or access essential services. Many people are forced to take matters in their own hands. Consequently, crime and exploitation flourish.
  2. The most vulnerable pockets of the population are protected: A review of development progress over the past 14 years has shown that countries with legitimate laws and credible enforcement mechanisms have made better progress in expanding opportunities for women and vulnerable groups to participate in economic and political life.  Legal empowerment of the disenfranchised is especially relevant in societies where women cannot access justice due to reasons of custom, shame or tradition.
  3. All people can prosper: Prioritizing justice for all means that more people have access to employment, sanitation and education, which in turn results in a more inclusive development.  Ensuring that the gains of development are shared between all sections of society bridges the divide between the haves and the have-nots, and helps build more just and stable societies.

Why Is Legal Empowerment Not a Reality in the Arab World?

In the Arab world, legal empowerment has not been a foundational element of development and poverty reduction. In part, this has been the result of a need to constantly respond to pressing problems such as the impacts of environmental change, the global economic recession and more recently the conflict in Syria.  However, as the Arab Spring has shown, ignoring the legal rights of the poor and most marginalized can have debilitating effects on a country’s development and prosperity.

When it comes to providing justice for all, countries in West Asia and North Africa are faced with challenges on several fronts:

  1. Lack of essential resources such as water: Around 17 per cent of the population in the Arab world lack access to improved sources of drinking water (compared to the world average of 11 per cent), and 20 per cent lack access to improved sanitation facilities. In many rural areas, girls must trek long distances to fetch water for their families. This results in low education participation rates, as well as making them vulnerable to threats of violence and sexual assault.  The lack of access to readily available, clean and affordable water also has a negative impact on key health, economic and social indicators.
  2. Ongoing conflicts: The unpredictable and dynamic political transitions in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, and Libya, as well as the continuing instability in Syria and Iraq, and the unresolved conflict in the Occupied Palestinian Territories force governments to dedicate their resources to address civilian violence, unanticipated breakdowns in service provision, and the destruction of infrastructure. The spillover of refugees from Syria into neighboring countries places immense pressure on public resources such as water, electricity and waste management.
  3. Unemployment: Despite high secondary and tertiary education rates in many Arab states, youth unemployment sits at 22 per cent for men, and as high as 40 per cent for women. The informal economy makes up 60 per cent of the Arab workforce. Laborers in the informal economy have poor access to entitlements such as minimum wages, social security and insurance. Lack of credit, training and opportunity discourages entrepreneurial growth and stifles innovation.

What Are the Solutions to Enable Legal Empowerment?

The problems might seem intractable, but there exist solutions that will help develop and implement a unique and authentic Arab roadmap to inform future development:

  1. Address the “Why do we care” question: Because of their vulnerability, the poor and marginalized are more likely to be victims of theft, sexual or economic exploitation and violence. As a result, they fall further into poverty. The governments of the Arab World need to care.
  2. Stop making excuses: Often decision-makers resist legal empowerment on the grounds that this might aggravate instability. Legal empowerment must be promoted as a tool of conflict resistance and resilience – and not as a catalyst for revolution.
  3. Include civil society in the conversation: Legal empowerment is too large a problem to be left to government alone. Civil society must be brought into development discussions to gain insights into the challenges faced by the marginalized and develop truly meaningful strategies.
  4. Prioritize a data-based approach: A new development framework and policies must be evidence-based, as opposed to being founded on ‘buzz words’ and conjecture.
  5. Build a culture that supports legal empowerment: Kick-start a fundamental rethink of how people of the region perceive that the legal system is a tool that can assist them in their development – and is not a barrier that is to be overcome. 

What Next?

By excluding justice and the rule of law, the first set of the MDGs were rendered ineffective in truly transforming the lives of the poorest and the most marginalized.

Enabling people to understand and use the law, to claim and exercise their rights, and to hold public institutions to account will result in economic growth, livelihoods and social equity.

As efforts to articulate a roadmap beyond 2015 draw to a close, it is especially important that we act now to include a goal on justice and legal empowerment in the post-2015 development agenda.