Allies Unknown: Legal Empowerment and Social Accountability

By: Vivek Maru

Published in the journal Health and Human Rights, this essay suggests that two strands of social action which have hitherto developed separately — legal empowerment and social accountability — ought to learn from one another. Legal empowerment efforts grow out of the tradition of legal aid for the poor; they assist citizens in seeking remedies to breaches of rights. Social accountability interventions employ information and participation to demand fairer, more effective public services. The two approaches share a focus on the interface between communities and local institutions. The legal empowerment approach includes, in addition, the pursuit of redress from the wider network of state authority. The essay suggests that social accountability interventions should couple local community pressure with legal empowerment strategies for seeking remedies from the broader institutional landscape.

Legal empowerment programs, for their part, often under-emphasize injustices related to essential public services such as health and education, perhaps in part because they tend to wait for communities and individuals to raise problems. Instead, legal empowerment programs should learn from social accountability practitioners’ use of aggregate data as a catalyst for community action. Legal empowerment organizations would also benefit from adopting the attention to empirical impact evaluation that has characterized experimentation in social accountability.


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