Achieving global justice starts locally – Inside Philanthropy
Since my childhood, I dreamed of becoming a lawyer specializing in human rights. But just as I was about to start my first year of law school at the University of Nairobi, my father was forced into exile, and I, bitterly, resentfully, was forced to follow. . We left Kenya and found refuge in the United States.
Like many immigrants and refugees sailing to a new country, I went through an identity crisis. I was lucky, however. I had people around me, my family in particular, who supported me. I received training (first at Rice University, then Tulane Law School) that encouraged me to think creatively and use my lived experiences. And I turned my lifelong passion for human rights into a career in legal aid, representing marginalized communities – immigrants, migrant farm workers and low-income people threatened with deportation or losing their rights. social advantages.
I loved the job and was passionate about my clients. But I saw more and more how the formal justice system was not informed by their individual or community needs. Like me when I arrived in the United States, my clients’ skills and knowledge were neither valued nor applicable. They couldn’t find solutions to their own problems. The American justice system let people down at the local level.
But it wasn’t just the American justice system. When I returned to Kenya I saw the same problems: people were forced to avoid effective problem solving at the community level to access a formal justice system which, while necessary, was in no way sufficient case for long-term social and systemic change. Thanks to legal aid, we have achieved important victories. But without local legal authority to ensure compliance and continue the work, our gains were too often temporary.
About two-thirds of the world’s population lives outside the protection of the law. Billions of people do not have access to the opportunities offered by the law; millions of people live in conditions of extreme injustice or marginalization, such as modern slavery or statelessness. This global justice gap undermines institutions that provide legal protections, perpetuates systemic inequality, and impedes the realization of human rights.
Closing the global justice gap must start with the people and communities affected. Legal empowerment – the belief that grassroots legal actors in marginalized and vulnerable communities are best placed to promote sustainable social justice – builds on the progress made by legal aid groups in creating space for local justice advocates to pursue lasting change. Transferring resources to local legal aid and human rights organizations creates lasting opportunities for social transformation through community advocacy and mobilization.
Turning this idea into action is not easy. Local legal empowerment movements are woefully underfunded and neglected. Often they are unable to meet the demands of traditional donors, which require prescribed documentation such as logical frameworks or problem statements.
Even when funding is available, many traditional donor organizations continue to demand formal elements that a local movement may not have, such as government registration and legal recognition, a constitution, financial officials, and funding systems. ‘audit.
Finally, most funding is short-term and project-based; it does not last more than a few years and is devoted to specific activities. Such funding can be effective, but it works poorly in dynamic situations and fails to understand that lasting solutions require long-term visions and long-term support.
This funding status quo has created a cruel paradox: we all understand that marginalized communities cannot access formal justice systems, but at the same time, we have created a funding system that is often just as inaccessible to these same communities. . Inadvertently, we have created another glaring inequality: a gap in access to resources that only worsens the gap in access to justice.
Building on decades of hard-won victories by stubborn legal aid groups and the work of the global legal empowerment movement, I am hopeful that the new Legal Empowerment Fund (LEF)—A program that I lead at the Global Human Rights Fund — can give even more people the dignity and protection they need. With the support of our funders and allies, including the Hewlett Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and Namati, our goal is to channel funding into locally rooted legal empowerment movements around the world, enabling communities to propose more sustainable, equitable and scalable solutions for the problems they face.
We will let organizations use their own language and their own resources to tell their stories and solve their problems. And our funding mechanisms will meet with communities where they are, recognizing that community organizations working under repressive regimes, with limited funding and resources, often cannot comply with complex technical and procurement processes. It is a new approach to the donor-recipient relationship, where responsibility is linked to reality.
Legal empowerment is a fitting idea at this time. My journey to this point – from law school in New Orleans to becoming a human rights defender in Kenya – is proof that the most obvious path is not always the most effective. Just as my family and mentors gave me the support I needed to thrive, it’s time for us to invest in letting communities lead the fight for justice.
Atieno Odhiambo is the director of the Legal Empowerment Fund. A lawyer by training, Odhiambo’s experience ranges from working for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Kenya to representing marginalized populations in Washington State and Kenya.