Building a collective learning agenda for the Legal Empowerment field

As a member of this network, you probably consider legal empowerment important to strengthen people’s agency, increase legal knowledge, and improve access to justice. But what evidence do we have to support these claims about the impact of legal empowerment? What have we learned about what works in different contexts? What is needed to make our work sustainable?

To answers those questions, we need to join our efforts, knowledge, and information. The good news is that we’ve taken the first step in this direction. In April, the Bernstein Institute for Human Rights at NYU School of Law hosted a conference on “Reimagining Justice: Realizing Human Rights through Legal Empowerment”. The event brought together practitioners, activists, and academics from all over the world to discuss the state of the field. As a side event, Namati, the Global Legal Empowerment Network, and the Bernstein Institute for Human Rights convened a meeting with 30 practitioners and academics to start a conversation about a learning agenda for legal empowerment.

Check out this video from the Shared Learning Agenda meeting and hear from some of the practitioners, including @WalterFlores, @JaneWeru, and @manzoorhasan:

Now we want to invite all members of the network to join the discussion. A shared learning agenda can focus the efforts of hundreds of organizations in the same direction - allowing us to collectively address knowledge gaps that no single organization could take on alone. Working together we can build strong evidence base for the field.

Why is a learning agenda important?

  1. It helps us get better. If we are thoughtful about core questions in our field we will be able to improve the ways that we work, allowing us to build stronger programs and more effectively address injustice.

  2. Evidence helps make the case for investing in legal empowerment. There is amazing power in the growing movement for legal empowerment. But we are nowhere near the level of funding support needed to sustain it and continue to grow. Clear evidence demonstrating the impact and effectiveness of legal empowerment efforts shows why it matters and is worth the investment.

Key takeaways from the workshop

What we already know: After nearly fifteen years of experimentation, there is a growing body of evidence from individual legal empowerment programs. These studies show strong impacts on citizen’s rights awareness, development outcomes and well-being, and improvements to public institutions. But important gaps remain. One critical missing piece is comparative learning that can help us understand what works in different contexts and why. There are also several sectors that are under researched, including criminal justice, citizenship and refugee rights, and corporate accountability, among others.

Important areas for learning:

  • Program Methods Identifying successful strategies and the design decisions associated with each we can generate guidance for practitioners to design and implement high impact programs.

  • Relationship to the State – The relationship to the state is of central importance and includes several challenges, notably how to balance collaboration and confrontation over time and ways to maintain independence when receiving public funding.

  • Scale – Figuring out how to grow our impact to meet the scale of the need is a critical challenge. This includes questions about replicability, maintaining quality during growth, and alternative paths to large-scale impact.

  • Sustainability – Funding availability is an existential concern for many legal empowerment initiatives. We need to identify creative, cost-effective ways to deliver programs and sustain impact over time.

  • Social movements and organizing – At its core, legal empowerment is focused on transformative social change. Learning from organizing and movement building can deepen our understanding of political process and how to facilitate, organize, and sustain collective action.

How to generate learning: For us, learning includes any intentional process of iteratively improving how we work. A wide range of approaches all have a role to play—from peer-to-peer exchanges to use of existing case data and program monitoring and evaluation, to formal research studies. These processes are the crucial means for translating reflection into insight and action.

Here is a summary report that gives an overview of the issues discussed during the convening.

Join us!

Over the next 6 months, we will collaboratively develop a shared learning agenda that lays out the most important questions for the field. Once there is a draft version we will share widely with members of the Global Legal Empowerment Network for feedback. We aim for the learning agenda to be a collaborative and dynamic effort that includes broad representation from across the field. Once a shared learning agenda has been finalized, organizations can take up the specific pieces that are most relevant to them, using it to guide their efforts and adapting it to their context when needed.

Making the case for why legal empowerment should be a public priority requires reliable evidence. We think the field has matured to the point where we are strong enough to take on the challenge of bringing an ambitious learning agenda to life. What do you think?

Jump into the discussion! Share your ideas and the learning questions are you grappling with by answering this post and feel free to reach out if you want further information!