This week’s featured resource is Legal Empowerment and Group-Based Inequality by Lars Waldorf and comes to us from The Journal of Development Studies, 2019 Vol. 55, No. 3, 437–455.
The inclusion of access to justice in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) may well give further impetus to programming for legal empowerment of the poor, particularly in post-conflict contexts1 where a sizable percentage of the world’s poor reside. To date, legal empowerment has tended to focus on vertical inequality (in income and power) between rich and poor. Yet, in many post-conflict environments, the more salient concern is horizontal inequalities between different ethnic groups2 as these can lead to new or renewed conflict. Can legal empowerment address horizontal inequalities in post-conflict settings, and, if so, how? The ability of legal empowerment programmes to actually reduce horizontal inequalities depends of course on context, including the nature of the political settlement.3 The context is far more ‘inauspicious’ where political, social, economic, and cultural inequalities are mutually reinforcing; these horizontal inequalities are deeply embedded in the political settlement, socio-economic structure, cultural norms, and plural legal systems; and the inequalities were among the causes of conflict. The article argues that legal empowerment has some limited potential to reduce horizontal inequalities but that this needs to be done in a conflict-sensitive manner to avoid reinforcing group identities, raising inter-group tensions, reducing social cohesion, and, in the worst case, triggering conflict.
The aim of this article is to bring distinct academic and policy discourses – around legal empowerment, horizontal inequalities, and, to a lesser extent, social cohesion – that rarely intersect into greater conversation with one another. These literatures are still relatively new and their evidence bases correspondingly thin. Consequently, this article is more an exploratory, conceptual effort to think through the opportunities and challenges of using legal empowerment to address horizontal inequalities in post-conflict settings – an issue that until now has received scant attention. It also aims to contribute to the limited literature on the political economy of legal empowerment (see Desai, Wagner, & Woolcock, 2014; Domingo & O’Neil, 2014). More research, however, is needed before conclusions can be made with confidence. This article starts by discussing legal empowerment and the contextual drivers for effective implementation in post-conflict contexts. Next, the article considers whether and how legal empowerment might reduce horizontal inequalities while mitigating the risks of doing harm. It then looks at how two different legal empowerment programmes in Liberia did (but mostly did not) address horizontal inequalities. The article concludes with some thoughts on further research as well as policy implications.
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The Featured Resource is a short profile of a key resource found in the resource library of the Global Legal Empowerment Network. These resources can be older or brand new, but they all touch on important themes within legal empowerment. If you have a resource you would like to profile with the network, upload it directly at this link or email it to firstname.lastname@example.org