Knowledge of the Law Empowers People, Strengthens Democracy, Maru Says

December 11, 2017

Giving ordinary people a knowledge of the law, and how to use it to initiate change, empowers people and strengthens democracy, said Vivek Maru, CEO of Namati and World Economic Forum Social Entrepreneur of the Year. Maru, a leader in the field of legal empowerment through his social enterprise, Namati, helped direct the Legal Empowerment Leadership Course held by the Global Policy Academy (GPA) at CEU’s School of Public Policy December 4-9, together with the Open Society Justice Initiative, the Robert L. Bernstein Institute for Human Rights at New York University.

“There’s power in changing someone’s relationship with the law into something you can invoke yourself,” said Maru, in a public address at CEU entitled “Know Law, Use Law, Shape Law: Legal Empowerment and A Deeper Version of Democracy.” “This is about making democracy happen. Winning this fight requires all of us.”

Maru told the story of Ravi (not his real name) in Gujarat, India, who lives near a cement factory whose negligence causes a constant cloud of dust that sickens the residents and animals and pollutes the area’s drinking water. Children must walk kilometers each day to reach a school in a safer environment, and residents must walk similar distances for clean water. After writing appeals to the company for years, Ravi walked to the gates with a bucket of petrol, intending to set himself on fire.

“He is not alone in his desperation,” Maru said. “In 2008, four billion people were without basic access to justice. There are almost always laws that would protect these people, but they had never heard of them. The systems to enforce these laws are corrupt, or broken, or both.”

Ravi was arrested before he could commit suicide. A year later, a paralegal explained to him that the law was on his side, through the principle of “consent to operate,” which allows a factory to run only if it meets certain conditions. Together, Ravi and the paralegal filed documents to administrative institutions to try to make a change.

“This started turning the creaky wheels of enforcement,” Maru said. “There was a site inspection. The company started running an air filtration system, and started covering the trucks it used. This reduced air pollution considerably. It’s not over yet, but there’s progress.”

GPA’s Legal Empowerment Leadership Course is an opportunity for leading thinkers in the development community to come together to learn from each other and identify strategies to strengthen justice and development planning and programming. The course, now in its 3rd year, drew 65 participants from 30 countries working for international organizations, governments, development partners and assistance providers, and civil society. The dialogue focused on international rule of law assistance and the extent to which it successfully addresses concerns about reducing poverty and fostering economic development.

Maru told stories of small successes in Kenya as well as in the U.S., where urban housing crises in cities like New York City often result in evictions for those without access to legal assistance. The prevailing negative view of the legal profession hampers progress, so paralegals are a key resource, he said.  Namati helps convene a global network of tens of thousands of paralegals, sometimes called barefoot lawyers.

“If we want to make justice a reality for everyone, we need to turn the threat into something everyone can understand, use, and shape,” he said. “We can’t leave it to lawyers alone. Community paralegals demystify law and help find a solution.”