A shared learning agenda takes legal empowerment to the next level

Photo: Joshua Wanyama - Flickr -  (CC BY 2.0) - Some rights reserved

With more than 1,500 organizations and nearly 6,000 individual members, the Global Legal Empowerment Network offers a platform for connecting and sharing ideas. 

The global movement for legal empowerment is stronger than ever. On every continent in the world, grassroots advocates are supporting vulnerable groups to understand, use, and shape the laws that affect their lives. Legal empowerment cuts across a wide range of issue areas, including health, gender-based violence, land rights and environmental justice, and many others. While this speaks to the transformative potential of legal empowerment, it also means that the field can sometimes feel like a set of parallel, disconnected efforts. As practitioners, it’s all too easy to stay in our lane or get stuck in a silo.

With more than 1,500 organizations and nearly 6,000 individual members, the Global Legal Empowerment Network offers a platform for connecting and sharing ideas. However, without a shared vision of the most important questions, our community risks missing opportunities to go even deeper.

Deeper learning about legal empowerment can take the field to the next level in two ways. First, it helps us get better. If practitioners 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. This requires studying core design questions across different issue areas and contexts (e.g., how do you provide paralegals with adequate support and supervision so that they can be their best? How do you equip them in a way that enables them to win?).

Second, evidence helps make the case for investing in legal empowerment. There is amazing power in the growing movement for legal empowerment, but the current levels of funding are nowhere near what is needed to sustain and grow the field. In 2017, over 63% of Global Legal Empowerment Network members reported that they would have to close or make significant cuts due to lack of funding. Compelling evidence demonstrating the impact and effectiveness of legal empowerment can show why it matters and why it should be a public priority.

After nearly fifteen years of experimentation, there is a growing body of evidence from individual legal empowerment programs, but important gaps still remain. One critical missing piece is comparative learning that can help us understand what works in different contexts and why. There needs to be a way to harness insights emerging from experimentation around the world.

On April 25, a group of 30 legal empowerment practitioners and researchers came together to take the first step in developing a learning agenda. As Walter Flores from the Center for the Study of Equity and Governance in Health Systems-CEGSS reminded us, “Learning is a collective experience. No one says I can build knowledge on my own. It’s a collective process.” A shared learning agenda focuses 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. By prioritizing key questions, it can guide innovation and promote evidence-building around effective strategies for legal empowerment. As an added bonus, the community of practice that evolves around a learning agenda will also improve practice in real time.


Some of the most pressing questions include:

  • Legal empowerment methods: how can paralegals overcome power asymmetries between communities and firms or between people and corrupt officials?
  • Impact: what impact does legal empowerment have on concrete changes in human wellbeing? What are the effects on the relationship between state officials and the people they’re meant to serve?
  • Relationship to the state: how can organizations navigate the tensions between confrontation and collaboration? Are there ways to design public financing that maintain the independence of legal empowerment practitioners?
  • Funding sustainability: what mix of funding sources do legal empowerment organizations currently rely on? What other possibilities exist and how can we access them?
  • Catalyzing social change: how can advocates build community power while seeking remedies to concrete injustices? Can social movements contribute to scaling or deepening the impact of legal empowerment efforts?


It’s worth being clear about what we mean by learning. People tend to think that learning comes from research, but that’s far from the only path. 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. Learning can come from any intentional process of iteratively improving how practitioners work.

One illustration of the magic of a learning agenda is the ability to leverage failure. In the challenging environments where Namati works, failure is bound to be part and parcel of the process. But learning turns failure into a valuable asset. For example, when we did an evaluation of our Citizenship program in Kenya we realized that most of the community members we served viewed their case as an isolated incident. While discrimination in identity documentation is widespread, few of them knew that others had experienced the same struggles. We hadn’t done enough to build a collective understanding of discrimination as a broader problem. We’ve since started holding community forums to share data on trends and stories from community members about their experience.

Over the next six months Namati, the Global Legal Empowerment Network, and the Bernstein Institute for Human Rights will continue to engage practitioners and researchers to collaboratively develop a shared learning agenda. Rather than sitting with any particular organization or institution, the learning agenda is meant to be a dynamic, living document that any organization can take up and adapt.

The day after the learning agenda meeting, I took part in the Reimagining Justice conference that convened human rights activists from over 25 countries to discuss how legal empowerment can transform access to justice and make human rights real. It was an incredible opportunity to map the connections across all of our work. My mind was buzzing with new ideas that came out of what might seem like unexpected juxtapositions: how activism on criminal justice reform in San Jose relates to community organizing for justice in mining areas in Haiti and efforts to secure housing rights in Nairobi.

I found myself looking around the room at the amazing community coming together across geographies and causes and wondering how do we grow together? What can we learn from one another? I look forward to exploring these questions together in the months ahead.

For a summary report from the conference, please click here.