People should have a say over their lives and livelihoods. When resources are scarce and governance weak, people often lack the protections of basic rights or services that everyone deserves. In such circumstances, having the agency to make decisions as a community becomes even more important. The right to have a say in decisions that impact you is foundational.
But it is not as simple as just asking everyone what they want. Cultivating spaces for deliberative decision-making that actually works—without allowing the outcomes or process to be “captured” by those in power—requires time and intention.
In three very different contexts, programs from Namati, a legal empowerment organization, have pioneered new ways to support local committees as engines of democracy and rights protection, helping committees become robust spaces for participation.
In Moçambique, the Right to Health program helps build the capacity of village health committees (VHC) to improve accountability, secure the right to privacy, and strengthen service delivery in the public health system; in Sierra Leone, village area land committees (VALC) bring together residents to exercise rights over their land, protecting it from underhanded investors and environmental degradation; and in Kenya, community land management committees (CLMC) lead the way in implementing communal ownership and managing land and natural resources.
Several practical insights emerged from a recent exchange in which these programs participated:
Legal frameworks aren’t enough to ensure that committees will protect rights. Laying down best practices and guidelines is essential.
In these three countries, there are formal pathways to devolve power to the grassroots through local committees. Legal frameworks pave the way for robust, participatory local committees, but those frameworks alone aren’t enough to foster participation and secure rights. There need to be operational guidelines on how to establish and run these committees for both the committees themselves and the powerful institutions and people who can legitimize and enable them
In Sierra Leone, landmark new land rights laws (2022) provide a framework and mandate for VALCs to make collective decisions about community land rights, including how to select committee members. However, this legal framework is not enough for communities and civil society to establish effective VALCs. To address this challenge, the Sierra Leone team has created some initial guidelines for VALCs based on grassroots experience, piloting them in over 20 communities.
Similarly, the team in Kenya has a thorough process for drawing up by-laws before a CLMC is even formed. Everything from the operation of the CLMC to how collective decisions about land rights and resources will be made is laid out in the by-laws for the entire community to discuss. The process of developing the by-laws serves as a model for inclusive and actionable dialogue that is ideal for stewarding community land.
Creating strong committees requires focusing on two fronts: communities and institutions
Our teams have found that it is not enough to bring together committed community members—existing power holders must also buy in. In Moçambique, for example, our frontline defensores de saúde (paralegals) put as much emphasis on educating and supporting health workers and officials as they do on training and encouraging committee members. When the work in Moçambique began, Namati brought health officials from the national and provincial levels to witness firsthand how VHCs could serve as an engine of accountability for health facilities and how this accountability led to the protection of patients’ rights. Incrementally, the team and communities have built a cadre of champions in powerful positions that enabled VHCs to fulfill their role.
In Kenya and Sierra Leone, there is a risk of powerful groups capturing and using local committees for their own gain, so engaging them early as partners is critical. Helping them understand the role of committees, clarifying their role in supporting committees’ work, and appealing to their sense of duty are all important features of this partnership. Between that direct engagement with power and the use of a committee to increase the communities’ power to speak for themselves and demand recognition, it is possible to generate the political will for collective empowerment.
The team in Sierra Leone has started their support with paramount chiefs, who have traditionally held significant power and authority over community land rights. The new laws alter the roles of paramount chiefs and shift some power to community members, but paramount chiefs remain an integral part of governance. Namati has trained 192 paramount chiefs in VALC guidelines, getting their buy-in and setting them up for success in supporting VALCs in their chiefdom.
Training committee members is not a one-time thing
Over time, the goal is for most committees to stand on their own without extensive involvement from community paralegals. But that does not happen overnight. Regardless of location or issue area, committee members need regular training and coaching if the committees are to be effective, active, and participatory. There are multiple skill sets where training and coaching are valuable: knowledge of the law and the committee’s mandate, rights awareness, inclusive facilitation, and community outreach. An experienced community paralegal is an expert at balancing these responsibilities. Early on, they lean into recruiting and educating committee members, but as time passes, they pull back into the role of facilitator, coach, and fierce advocate. After all, the committee is not theirs—it belongs to the community.
Local grassroots governance bodies like VHCs, CLMCs, and VALCs are an integral part of legal empowerment work, and Namati and its partners are committed to finding the best ways to make them rich and sustained spaces for building power and protecting rights.