Legal empowerment as action research

Recognising legal empowerment as collective reflection and action led by those whose rights are at stake changes the role of researchers and the methods used to support, and learn from, processes of change.

Lorenzo Cotula's picture
Lorenzo Cotula is a principal researcher in IIED’s Natural Resources research group
11 January 2022
A group of people sit on the floor in a circle. A woman on her feet is reading from a paper. Some other people are no their feet and holding hands in the air.

Collective reflection and action in Nepal (Photo: copyright Community Self-Reliance Centre)

Policy research typically involves gathering evidence to inform public decisions. But social and environmental justice problems rarely originate from knowledge gaps alone: bringing evidence to bear typically requires confronting power relations.

Legal empowerment approaches aim to shift power by bridging research and action and developing new ways to engage with the law.

Such ‘action research’ is more applied than conventional research, more reflective than purely operational projects. Collaborating with legal empowerment thinkers and practitioners has taught me that action research involves more than just linking evidence to practice.

Its emphasis on iterative learning and doing highlights fundamental questions about what counts as evidence and who drives the agenda.

Recognising these issues changes the role of researchers and provides insights on how research can support and document processes of change.

The concept of legal empowerment

To paraphrase development studies scholar Naila Kabeer, empowerment is the process whereby socially, politically and juridically marginalised people – from small-scale farmers to low-paid workers, the landless, residents of informal settlements, ethnic minorities or Indigenous Peoples, both women and men – secure greater control over changes affecting their lives.

Many have critiqued the notion of empowerment because of its frequent misuse, such as when development organisations claim their activities ‘empower’ disadvantaged groups. These claims display undertones of ‘saviourism’, suggesting power is given by elite groups. They often also ignore major social differences within groups.

For me, empowerment remains a useful notion because it places power at centre stage and frames change as renegotiating power relations. But in my experience, durable power shifts can only originate from within: marginalised actors empower themselves as change-making protagonists in any genuine empowerment story.

External organisations can demonstrate solidarity and allyship but cannot drive the process. In this way, empowerment links closely to agency – the ability to make choices, take action and effect change.

Legal empowerment involves asserting agency through legal rights and strategies. This can take different forms. It can entail groups obtaining information about rights and how to enforce them, strengthening their own representative organisations or enhancing their strategies to engage with other actors.

Because the law often discriminates against marginalised groups, legal proceedings may be of limited value. But rights can still provide an entry point for those groups to interrogate and renegotiate, in the broadest sense, the ways in which policies and practices affect their lives. Such reflection can inform public mobilisation or dialogue around specific problems or advocacy to change unjust laws.

A diverse field

Framing legal empowerment in agency terms makes it a form of action research: approaches facilitate co-production of knowledge by those most directly concerned, link findings to practical interventions, and generate evidence on what makes change possible.

The framing also raises questions about how external organisations can be supportive allies of the groups leading the action, for example by responding to demands for information, analysis or lesson sharing.

Much intellectual leadership on these questions originates in the global South, where practitioners have long harnessed rights to challenge social and environmental injustice, often in the context of adverse economic integration – from land dispossession and worker exploitation to structural discrimination against Indigenous Peoples. Though many insights have been written up, most have not and thus are experiential in nature.

Strategies vary extensively, reflecting diverse contexts and issues, as a few examples from IIED’s ongoing collaborations show. The Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (Indonesian language only) uses the notion of ‘structural legal aid’ (Indonesian language only) to sustain comprehensive legal and social strategies that go beyond individual court cases and instead identify and confront the deeper drivers of marginalisation.

Nepal’s Community Self-Reliance Centre supports small-scale farmers and the landless in their struggles for land and agrarian rights through collective reflection on problems and possible responses, public mobilisation to put ideas into action, and policy engagement with government agencies at local to federal levels.

And in Cameroon, the Centre for Environment and Development (French language only) and the Network for the Fight against Hunger (French language only) support land law reform by generating evidence on local land problems, helping citizen groups develop joint reform proposals, and facilitating dialogue with parliament and government.

Many initiatives pursue several objectives at once. Years ago, I collaborated with the legal clinic of the University of Bamako on providing legal literacy support in villages around large mining concessions.

Activities mobilised not only law lecturers but students as well, so a new generation of lawyers could make sense of the law based not just on textbooks originating from the former colonial power but on real-life experiences in Mali's rural areas.

Reflect and act

These approaches are diverse, but they all centre on collective reflection as the foundation for research and action. Even when facilitated by external professionals, the reflecting is led by the people whose rights are most directly at stake.

Often called ‘participants’ in social science fields, these people are research actors rather than subjects, and protagonists in the change process.

The role of reflection in linking research and action echoes the work of Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire, who saw education as ‘conscientisation’ and the basis for collective action. It is, in my view, a defining feature of legal empowerment; mere legal assistance or representation can achieve impact – but involves service provision rather than empowerment.

This applies to legal literacy training as well. Just sitting through a training session is not empowering. But the sessions I witnessed in Mali years ago facilitated grassroots deliberation about what ‘law’ is and connected it to participants’ own experiences of traditional governance systems.

As a result, people engaged as active contributors rather than passive trainees, with their discussions often mirroring, albeit in more concrete terms, the debates one can find in legal textbooks.

It is this type of collective reflection that can inform and sustain action – from protecting tenants’ rights and helping the landless access farmland in Nepal (PDF), to seeking accountability for rights violations associated with large-scale agriculture in Indonesia, all the way to feeding public proposals for law reform into Cameroon’s parliamentary debates.

Throughout the process, reflection before and after acting produces evidence on the problems protagonists experience, such as the social and environmental impacts of large-scale investments or power imbalances within families and communities. It also generates insights on most effective responses, including the place of rights in framing demands and the strategies needed to shift power.

Implications for research design

The emphasis on reflective learning and doing entails methodological specificities. While conventional approaches assume that researchers are external to and neutral in the social relations they investigate, legal empowerment embeds action-researchers in those very relations. ‘Research excellence’ centres on rigour of process rather than the usual data collection parameters.

In projects spanning several countries, conventional research favours uniform approaches to ensure findings are comparable. But ensuring that protagonists lead and tailoring approaches to context can mean that legal empowerment results are not necessarily comparable across countries – though lessons learned from the action research process often are.

As legal empowerment involves renegotiating social relations, it inevitably takes time and often faces opposition. Iterative learning and doing can lead the process in directions not envisaged at the start. This creates tensions with the time and reporting cycles that often come with donor-funded projects.

Action-researchers need to design interventions that are flexible, take account of longer-term trajectories and track outcomes well after project completion.

If understood as action research, legal empowerment emphasises reflective learning, situates ‘participants’ as protagonists and co-producers of knowledge, and centres questions on practical approaches to shift power and push for change.

About the author

Lorenzo Cotula ( is a principal researcher in IIED’s Natural Resources research group

Lorenzo Cotula's picture