Economic Committee Is Told of Despair in Some Developing Countries as Poor People Grapple with Debt Problems, Legal Complications

16 October 2009

Economic Committee Is Told of Despair in Some Developing Countries as Poor People Grapple with Debt Problems, Legal Complications

16 October 2009
General Assembly
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Sixty-fourth General Assembly

Second Committee

Panel Discussion (AM)

Economic Committee is Told of Despair in Some Developing Countries

as Poor People Grapple with Debt Problems, Legal Complications

Panel Discussion:  ‘Legal Empowerment of Poor, Eradication of Poverty’

Poor borrowers in India and Bolivia committed suicide in despair over heavy debt burdens accumulated because the regulatory framework for microfinance loans was not fully developed, Thomas McInerney, Director of the Research, Policy and Strategic Initiatives for the International Development Law Organization (IDLO), told the Second Committee (Economic and Financial) today during a panel discussion on “Legal Empowerment of the Poor and Eradication of Poverty”.

The Committee Rapporteur, Denise McQuade, introduced the speakers and said she hoped the discussion would help Member States recognize the links between empowerment and the Millennium Development Goals, especially as it related to how legal empowerment could help reduce poverty and hunger.

Mr. McInerney discussed the IDLO findings as part of a presentation on his organization’s research of legal empowerment in the developing world that included community land titling in Liberia, Uganda and Mozambique; customary or traditional law in Namibia, Rwanda and Uganda; and improvement of legal protection for girls in India, Bangladesh, Kenya and Liberia.

Another IDLO project was a series of working papers on legal empowerment in different countries and regions, he said, adding that the initial findings showed that activities roughly fell into three categories:  rights enforcement, that was, poor people having access to justice; rights registration, which included birth and property registration; and participatory governance, in which communities had been given legal assistance.  In terms of access to justice, one paper had covered a case story in Malawi, where the training of a cadre of paralegals to assist the incarcerated (most of whom awaited trial) had helped reduce prison overcrowding from 40 per cent to 25 per cent.

He said IDLO had also studied a legal aid project in Bolivia where a number of legal clinics had been established throughout the country to provide pro bono legal assistance to poor people.  In that study, his organization found that a majority of Bolivian users of the clinics, 54 per cent, came to resolve problems that involved family law –- for example divorce and child custody cases.  Another 24 per cent involved civil law, such as contractual disputes.  Criminal law comprised 12 per cent, while only 3 per cent were related to land and property rights, a finding that suggested that many poor people had more immediate concerns than becoming entrepreneurs or defending existing property rights.  He said more work had to be done to identify the practical ways that legal empowerment could be brought about.

Hamid Rashid, Senior Adviser and Coordinator, Legal Empowerment of the Poor, Bureau for Development Policy, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), spoke about envisioning empowerment and ways in which a demand-driven approach to development could be promoted.  Legal empowerment of the poor was a necessary condition for poverty eradication, he said, since poverty was often both a cause and a consequence of exclusion from the law.  However, equality before the law did not automatically translate into equality in access and enjoyment of rights, since justice systems were biased against the poor; so legal empowerment should not necessarily seek absolute equality and the creation of an “even playing field”, but rather focus on equity, fairness and affirmative action. 

With regard to the UNDP initiative on legal empowerment of the poor, he said it had worked for a long time to empower the poor in various ways with regard to the law, and the core team within the Bureau for Development Policy now employed a staff of six people.  The UNDP had, furthermore, forged partnerships with a number of organizations and entities including the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), IDLO and the International Law Commission, as well as a number of a non-governmental organizations and people from academia.

He concluded by saying that there were many manifestations of empowerment initiatives around the world -- among them programmes that offered pro bono legal aid, legal education and paralegal training, that promoted women’s access to land and inheritance rights, and that protected indigenous knowledge and intellectual property of indigenous populations.  He described the UNDP vision for the future, which was the establishment of a global hub and “clearinghouse” for legal empowerment knowledge.

Another panellist, Lucie White, a Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, said that in many ways the right to property was a formal right, fundamental to dignity, material security and people’s sense of social connection and political citizenship.  In reality, the right to property was complex because it was not just about land and material goods.  Anything could become a property right, like a DNA sequence, air space or indigenous knowledge about a medicinal herb, which could then be configured by a particular kind of property right.  The right to property was deeply contested as demonstrated by conflicts between tenants and landlords.  It was a “cluster” of rights, including the right to own, sell and lease land.  Many right-to-property advocates had broken it down into the right to basic shelter, security of tenure, decent housing or a home, and the entitlement to sell.  Housing was the foundation for social and political citizenship.  Without the basic stability of a home, people could not exercise other rights.  That principle was very evident in advocacy for homeless people.

She said initial efforts to legally empower the poor were motivated by the idea that if you gave people titles to land they could use that land to get a loan, or they could sell it and then use the cash to promote something entrepreneurial and economic.  But the risk in giving people titles for sale was that if they lost their businesses, they would also lose the ability to pay for their homes.  Giving out titles to tenants also ran the risk of compromise as landlords could evict them, threatening their fundamental security of a home.  That was particularly seen in the context of the current foreclosure crisis.  Similarly, when squatters were evicted from settlements when development increased the land value of the property in which they lived, they lost the capacity to other rights.

There were legal ways to enable people to exercise their right to a home, such as grassroots organizing, forming global and local alliances, working with lawyers and doing strategic litigation, making new laws, and fighting for human rights.  However, she said, one could not begin to address the problem without developing a collective voice for the poor, and more legal research about that was needed.

During the discussion, many delegates said the legal empowerment agenda was a practical concept that offered new insights into the development process and transcended North-South divisions.  They stressed the need to strengthen the voice of poor people and supported the idea of having the United Nations serve as a global hub for legal empowerment knowledge.  But they expressed concern over how empowerment could be implemented and financed, particularly as countries had their hands full with the challenges brought on by the global economic and climate change crises.

In response, Mr. McInerney said the next phase for legal empowerment was to understand how it fit into the broader rule-of-law agenda, as part of the development process, something that he said his organization was doing with its own programming.  Legal empowerment was not an end in itself.  Countries must share information about legal empowerment approaches to such things as conflict prevention in water resource use or land grazing, and in which contexts they worked best to help poor people protect themselves.  He also stressed the importance of building partnerships between United Nations agencies and other organizations.

Mr. Rashid said UNDP was very clear about not promoting a “one size fits all” approach to its legal work in the field.  It worked with local partners to address the specific needs of countries and legislative shortfalls.  For example, it was partnering with paralegal organizations and pro bono lawyers in Egypt to train legal workers to ensure the poor got better access to justice in the country’s 237 family courts, which were overloaded with cases.  In Indonesia, it was involved in the creation of a national justice strategy to fit into the national development plan.  In South Africa, it found that the rulings of the customary justice system relating to wages and basic tenure security were biased against the poor and women, and it was trying to change that.  In other countries, it dealt with issues of land tenure disputes.

Ms. White said that giving poor people legal representation could enable them to exercise their right to tenure, thus resulting in property redistribution and material security for those poor people.  She stressed the importance of drawing on the programmes of the World Trade Organization, World Bank and international human rights instruments to better protect the poor.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.