Legal empowerment: what we do, what we've learned

If you missed the recent policy forum on legal empowerment, fear not: here Lorenzo Cotula recaps on what characterises IIED's approach and shares his top three lessons learned.

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Lorenzo Cotula
Lorenzo Cotula is a principal researcher (law and sustainable development) in IIED's Natural Resources research group
14 November 2017
A community in Cameroon, where Centre pour l'Environnement et le Developpement has been supporting junior lawyers in rural communities (Photo: Lorenzo Cotula/IIED)

A community in Cameroon, where Centre pour l'Environnement et le Developpement has been supporting junior lawyers in rural communities (Photo: Lorenzo Cotula/IIED)

When IIED hosted the UK Land Policy Forum meeting themed'‘Legal empowerment and agribusiness investments' earlier this month, it was a welcome chance to learn from diverse approaches and share experience from our 'Legal tools for citizen empowerment' initiative. Since 2006, this legal tools project has worked to strengthen the rights of rural people in the face of natural resource investments.

Characterising our work: three key features 

  1. Analysis, insight and learning form the foundations of our legal empowerment work. Close collaboration with local partners and lessons from the field inform our agenda for research and action. In turn, research to understand the evolving challenges communities face, and to distil insights from different legal empowerment approaches, underpins all activities.

    Research reports have also provided the basis for learning materials and processes to support grassroots advocates. The strong connection between research and action helps us question our own assumptions and consider ways to recalibrate our approaches.
  2. Applying a holistic, local-to-global perspective is a strategic choice, informed by our research and by practical experience. It is essential that those most directly affected by resource-based investments are able to exercise rights, make informed choices and advance their development agendas.

    But the transnational reality of investment processes requires using multiple entry points: by the time a business venture hits the ground, key decisions will have already been taken at higher levels. So we also focus our energies 'upstream', for example helping citizens to scrutinise national and international legal instruments.
  3. At the grassroots, tailored, locally-led approaches are essential. Given the diversity of situations and community aspirations, there is no single 'IIED approach'. Instead, we support the solutions developed by local partners and communities, then encourage learning and sharing across countries through practitioner-led workshops, webinars and publications.

    To illustrate, a recently completed project support by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) that worked to strengthen the accountability of public authorities across three countries pursued a different approach in each location.

    In Senegal, we worked with IED Afrique to pilot locally-negotiated 'land charters' setting ground rules for local government conduct; in Ghana, we supported the Land Resource Management Centre to establish grassroots committees advising traditional authorities; in Cameroon, we helped the Centre pour le Développement et l'Environnement to match law graduates to grassroots organisations.

Three key lessons

  1. Ensure communities are in the driving seat. Legal empowerment that is impactful and sustainable is ultimately about strengthening local organisations. So while development projects often involve raising awareness or designing 'tools', it is important to take a long-term, systemic perspective and embed the action in local institutions that can drive the agenda.

    In the example I mentioned before, these were local governments in Senegal, grassroots committees in Ghana, and institutional relationships linking grassroots NGOs to a national organisation with the necessary legal expertise in Cameroon. This emphasis on local organisations involves challenges, because social change requires time and local leaders may take the process in unexpected directions.
  2. Consider both the opportunities and the limits of law. Any legal work is affected by the quality of applicable law, and many laws provide weak rights and safeguards. But imaginative thinking can help push the boundaries of the law and there is a useful role to play in supporting citizens to participate in law reform processes.

    Also, legal work is best seen as an element of a wider package – at IIED we are starting to talk more explicitly of socio-legal empowerment. Where communities conduct advocacy on agribusiness investments, legal processes rarely work in isolation; they are typically more effective if they are part of a wider strategy that includes public mobilisation and collective action.

    Similarly, in community–investor negotiations, communities need a solid understanding of the business dimensions to make informed choices. This has implications for our approach – including the necessary skillsets, the scope of the research underpinning the action, and possibly collaboration with diverse players.
  3. Address the politics. Lawyers are trained to leave politics at the door. But legal empowerment is about power and involves renegotiating established socio–political relations. Practitioners typically have to grapple with vested interests and resistance to change, not only outside communities but also within communities themselves. In fact, the latter often raises the most difficult issues, bringing up different interests and visions and unequal power relations. 

    The politics can create real challenges, and in the worst instances raise concerns about the security of practitioners or communities. There are ways for practitioners to mitigate these challenges:
  • Always rigorously consider these issues 
  • Partner up with grassroots NGOs who understand the local politics
  • Tailor approaches to the specific context 
  • Recognise the importance of process, and the time it takes to get it right
  • Create broad local constituencies for change
  • Engage 'the powerful' in effective ways 
  • Develop effective risk management systems, and
  • Recognise that there are situations where legal empowerment may simply not be the best answer.

Lorenzo Cotula ( is a principal researcher (law and sustainable development) in IIED's Natural Resources research group.