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‘Make poor the agency of their own poverty reduction’

Jul 07, 2008

In a world where four billion people are denied their rights, empowering the poor with basic entitlements can go a long way in the reduction of poverty, feels Lloyd Axworthy, a member of the UN-sponsored Commission. He believes legal protection can enable the poor to realise their full potential.

Overshadowed by news of catastrophic food shortages in many parts of the world, natural disasters in Burma and China, and rising gas prices, was the release of a report by a United Nations-sponsored commission that offers a refreshing set of proposals to deal with the grinding reality of poverty, which afflicts two-thirds of the world's population.

The report's focus is not another call for more foreign aid, a demand for revision of trade policies or a radical push to foster confrontation between the developed and developing worlds.

Rather, the report on The Legal Empowerment of The Poor makes the singular point that if the poor are empowered to exercise basic legal rights, they can and will be the agency of their own poverty reduction.

Full recognition of legal identity, assured access to the courts, basic labour protection, the right to own property and the rule of law to prevent exploitation by the powerful are vital tools to enable the poor to realise their full potential.

Full recognition of legal identity, assured access to the courts, basic labour protection, the right to own property and the rule of law to prevent exploitation by the powerful are vital tools to enable the poor to realise their full potential.

Unfair game

It seems obvious, doesn't it? Except that there are four billion people around the world who are denied the rights, protections and opportunities afforded by the rule of law. In far too many countries, political, economic and social affairs are governed by policies and institutions that prevent the poor from participating on an equal playing field.

For the majority of the world's citizens, the rules of the game are fundamentally unfair.

Three years ago, the Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor brought together a group of thinkers, former senior government officials, scholars and jurists to address this problem.

After much debate and analysis, and twenty-two consultations in developing countries in every region of the world, the Commission developed a comprehensive framework for legal empowerment, focusing on women, indigenous peoples and other vulnerable groups, with four mutually reinforcing pillars: Access to justice and the rule of law, property rights, labour rights and business rights.

Staggering problems

More than 70 percent of children living in the world's least-developed countries are without documentary proof of their existence. This puts them at greater risk for exploitation, impedes their access to health care and education and prevents them from fully participating as political, economic and social actors in society.

When I was election co-coordinator of the Organization of American States in Peru in 2006, I was told by President Alejandro Toledo that two million Peruvians didn't "exist."

They had no legal identity, which meant they had no chance of ever participating in the economic or political life of that country other than through an underground economy.

Then there are the beleaguered bureaucracies of countries such as India, where it appears there are just 11 judges for every million people; the Philippines, where judges average a 1,479-case backlog; and Kenya, where one million cases are awaiting trial.

The property of most of the world's poor is not protected. Constantly at risk of being evicted without compensation, the poor are left with little incentive to invest in their land or develop a business.

And the lands of indigenous peoples, are often declared "public" or "unoccupied," thus impeding their use for traditional or economic purposes.

Despite producing as much as 80 percent of food in developing countries, women own less than 10 percent of the world's property. Empowering women with property rights would lead to a significant reduction in poverty and malnutrition.

Most of the world's 500 million working poor - those earning less than US$1 a day - participate in the informal economy.

This represents up to 90 percent of the workforce in some South Asian countries. In theory, these workers are entitled to basic rights and protections, but these rights are rarely recognised.

The working poor are extremely vulnerable to exploitation, do not receive employment benefits from state or employer, suffer poor working conditions and hold jobs that are never secure.

Ensuring legal protection

The legal-empowerment agenda can have a profound impact on the global commitment to tackle poverty and advance human development through the Millennium Development Goals.

At its core, the legal-empowerment agenda is about unlocking human potential. By giving the poor access to legal  protections such as property rights and security of tenure, labour rights and business rights, we allow them to get maximum value for their work.

At its core, the legal-empowerment agenda is about unlocking human potential. By giving the poor access to legal  protections such as property rights and security of tenure, labour rights and business rights, we allow them to get maximum value for their work.

The Commission found many examples around the world where these protections spurred self-help, development and entrepreneurship.

These findings also carry a profound responsibility for the international community. As commission co-chairs Madeleine Albright and Hernando de Soto say in the report's preface,
"Those who consider the poor to be just another part of the human condition are ignorant, for the poor do not accept it, and when given the chance, will seize the opportunity to transform their lives."

The writer, a former foreign affairs minister for Canada and the president and vice-chancellor of the University of Winnipeg, served as a member of the Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor.

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