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Bridging Peace, Prosperity, and Planet: Community Paralegals for Land and Environmental Justice

Namati champions a paralegal approach: we help people protect their livelihoods and the planet by putting the power of law in their hands.

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"I don’t care what anyone says, this project is the best thing to happen in our history. Imagine: now we know our borders; we know our resources; we know our rules, and they are written down for everyone to see & know. People are attending clan meetings, and our clan feels stronger together. This has never happened before! Now it's easy for us to organize & ask the government or [foreign investors] for things we want or refuse things we don’t want in our community." - Community member, Liberia

Explain your project idea in two sentences.

Community paralegals help communities to understand, use, and shape the law. With the power of the law in their hands, these communities can protect their environments, livelihoods, and futures.

What is your organization name? Explain your organization in one sentence.

Namati is building a global movement of paralegals to help people know, use, and shape the law.

Is this project idea new for you or your organization? If no, how much have you already executed on?

For the past five years, Namati has been demonstrating and testing how paralegals can help communities, whose livelihoods depend on the planet, protect their land and natural resources. We have been rigorously improving our approach and are now looking to scale our work in four countries.

What is the problem you aim to solve with this idea? How would you define this problem as urgent and a priority in your target community?

Worldwide, demand for land and natural resources is increasing. Communities whose livelihoods depend on the planet need legal support to protect their rights: to gain formal title to their lands, to negotiate on more equal terms with investors, and to hold investors accountable for their actions.

What is the timeline for your project idea? What are the key steps for implementation in the next 1-3 years?

Our three-year scale-up plan involves several iterative steps: 1. Improve our paralegal training materials and learning system using human-centered design 2. Hire, train, and support more paralegals 3. Raise public awareness of land and resource rights, including what paralegals can offer 4. Through paralegals, empower communities with the legal tools and knowledge to protect their rights when engaging with powerful interests/investors, including companies, national elites, and government

Describe the individual or team that will implement this idea (if a partnership, please explain breakdown of responsibility).

Paralegals are the frontline drivers of the project. Trained in law, governance, and mediation, they are supported by experts at Namati and local partner organizations. They hail from the regions they serve, speaking local languages and understanding local cultures.

What do you need the most support with in this project idea?

  • Exposure

What is your primary goal over the next 6 weeks of Refinement?

  • Iterate or improve on my product/service

How do you currently measure (or plan to measure) results for this project?

In every community, we conduct baseline and endline user surveys, progress assessments during implementation, and deep impact assessments 6-12 months after project close. Our methods include household surveys, focus group discussions, and informant interviews. We are particularly focused on measuring legal empowerment. We want to know: what capacity do community members now have to act on their own if a problem arises? Can members now help their neighbors to undertake a similar process?

How has your project proposal changed due to your user research during the Beneficiary Feedback Phase?

We’ve realized that thinking through users’ learning journeys using human-centered design offers an opportunity to substantially level-up our methods for training paralegals and legally empowering communities. We now plan to develop an integrated 'learning system' to better equip paralegals to creatively co-design and nimbly problem-solve with the communities they support.

(Optional) What are some of your still unanswered questions or concerns about this idea?

Questions we continue to probe include: 1. How can paralegals facilitate land and environment protection activities to best foster long-term community ownership of the steps, from design to long-term governance? 2. How much external legal and technical support do communities need in these processes? 3. How can we best amplify community voices to inform and influence laws and regulations?

Namati trains and deploys paralegals who work with communities to advance justice. In 2016 alone, Namati and our implementing partners worked directly with over 15,000 clients in eight countries to protect community lands, enforce environmental law, and secure basic rights to healthcare and citizenship.

Explain your idea

Law has the power to advance peace, support prosperity and protect the planet, by giving people the power to shape their own lives and safeguard them from abuse. And yet, around the world, farmers, fisher people, and pastoralists are denied the power to manage what are often their greatest assets: their farmland, forests, pastures, rivers, lakes, and coasts. Meanwhile, there is an ever-increasing investment interest in exactly those resources. When the rights of those who live and depend on the land are insecure, we see conflict and shortsighted, environmentally harmful decisions instead of sustainable development. At the root of these problems there are profound imbalances of power—between farmers and a mining company, say, or between villagers and the local government where they live. There are also devastating gaps between de jure legal protections and lived experience. Many countries have laws recognizing customary land rights, for example, but those are of little use if people don’t have a map, or a deed, or institutions for making decisions about how the land is used. Namati champions a method -- grassroots legal advocates, or “community paralegals” -- for putting the power of law in the hands of people. These paralegals are trained in basic law and in skills like mediation, organizing, education, and advocacy. They form a dynamic, creative frontline that can engage formal and traditional institutions alike. Rather than treating their clients as victims requiring an expert service -- “I will solve this problem for you”-- community paralegals focus on legal empowerment. “We will solve this together, and when we’re done you will be in a stronger position to tackle problems like these in the future.” Over the past five years, we have continually improved our approach based on quantitative data and feedback from clients, partners, and other organizations working in the field. We have demonstrated that well-supported paralegals can help squeeze justice out of even broken systems. And we have seen that with a bit of legal empowerment, the people at the receiving end of environmental harm can be a powerful force for environmental stewardship. Their peace and prosperity depend on the health of the planet, and the planet in turn flourishes when these communities prosper in a peaceful society. Now Namati wants to dig deeper. We want to go beyond demonstrating legal empowerment methods. We want to use legal empowerment to change the course of nations. As Namati enters its second five-year phase, we plan to concentrate our focus on land and environmental justice in four core countries, using the community paralegal method to achieve large-scale transformative change. A partnership with OpenIDEO and GHR Foundation would play a pivotal role in enabling us to take on this challenge, particularly as some of our most significant core funding is coming to a close.

Who Benefits?

Namati works with clients in India, Myanmar, Sierra Leone, and Kenya who live outside the protection of the law, and whose well-being and security is tied closely to the environment. This includes indigenous communities, farmers, herders, and fisher people. We have secured thousands of resolutions to injustices, but our impact extends well beyond case results. Our method is focused on empowerment and public spiritedness. Paralegals help clients to understand, use, and shape the law. Clients come away with the knowledge, skills, and confidence to resolve future problems on their own and to help others facing similar injustices. Shakir was one such client. A fisherman in India, he worked with Namati on cases of environmental noncompliance and shared his learning with his peers. "We fishermen now know how to produce strong evidence of an illegal activity. . . Earlier we would seldom hear back from the erring party or the government, but now we are seldom ignored."

How is your idea unique?

Namati did not invent community paralegals, but we are the first and only international group dedicated to the approach. The Skoll Foundation recognized our innovation by honoring us with their prestigious award for social entrepreneurship. In Namati’s approach, paralegals collect data on every case. Together with our clients and allies, we use that information to advocate for systemic changes, like better policies for land governance in Liberia & environmental regulation in India. The field has historically missed this opportunity to translate grassroots experience into structural reform. We also use this data to generate cutting-edge methodological learning that we publish across several mediums. We convene the Global Legal Empowerment Network, which has 1K+ organizational members from 150 countries. We foster learning & collaboration across this community, helping to grow ecosystems of organizations applying legal empowerment methods to protect land and environmental rights.

Idea Proposal Stage

  • Full-scale roll-out: I have completed a pilot and analyzed the impact of that pilot on the users I am trying to reach with my idea. I am ready to expand the pilot significantly.

Tell us more about you

Namati is an international non-governmental organization, founded in 2011. Defending the rights of communities to govern natural resources in the context of the global land rush comprises the largest share of our work. We directly implement our program in Sierra Leone, and in India, Myanmar, and Kenya we collaborate with local partner organizations to proactively define and protect community lands, support equitable negotiations with investors, and ensure compliance with social and environmental regulation. These partners train, deploy and assist community paralegals, with guidance and support from Namati staff based in the country and in the United States. Together, we generate and publish methodological learning and identify opportunities to advocate for improvements to laws or policies. The following Namati program directors will lead the scaling up our land and environmental justice programs in each of the four core countries: - Manju Menon, Director, Environmental Justice Program, India - Jaron Vogelsang, Director, Community Land Protection Program, USA/Kenya - Tim Millar, Program Manager, Myanmar - Sonkita Conteh, Director, Sierra Leone - Rachael Knight, Special Advisor for Land, USA/Kenya/Sierra Leone Vivek Maru founded Namati in 2011 to grow the movement for legal empowerment around the world. Vivek received the Pioneer Award from the North American South Asian Bar Association in 2008. He was named an Ashoka Fellow in 2014 and a “legal rebel” by the American Bar Association in 2015. He, Namati, and the Global Legal Empowerment Network received the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship in 2016. In 2017, the Schwab Foundation named Vivek (and Sonkita) one of its Social Entrepreneurs of the Year. In his recently published essay in Foreign Policy, Vivek offers four principles for grappling with the challenge of financing access to justice -- critically important during this pivotal time in history. In Namati’s leadership, he heads a team of dynamic, accomplished leaders across the world who are dedicated to realizing Namati’s mission.

Expertise in sector

  • 5-7 years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered non-profit.


Join the conversation:

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Hi Namati Team! We’re excited to share with you feedback and questions from our expert reviewers. We encourage you to think about this feedback as you continue to improve and refine your idea. You are welcome to respond in the comments section and/or to incorporate feedback into the text of your idea. Your idea and all associated comments will all be reviewed during the final review process.

Based on expert career, previous work and field experience, is this a new approach or bold way of answering the challenge question:
• This idea is exciting as it is about equipping community members to do for themselves, rather than doing for them, a typical approach of the development community. When Namati leaves a country or community, their departure should not leave a whole, in contrast it should leave behind a citizenry that is better equipped to defend its natural resources, upon which livelihoods depend. A critical point here is the "continuing education" aspect of the programme; ensuring that the community paralegals maintain the knowledge needed to continue this work. If possible, would strengthen proposal to clarify/quanitfy desired results should be more clearly.
• The project reminds me of Saul Alinsky work in Chicago in the 50's when he developed his 'community organizing' method, that inaugurated the notion of empowerment, and that Barack Obama got trained to in his 20s. I would recommend that the paralegals learn about this method.

Desirability and Viability of proposal:
• Overall this project embodies all three criteria - desirable, feasible and viable; however, there are a few aspects of the approach that could be further refined. As indicated above, the project would benefit from further quantifying the proposed outcomes of the project. By more clearly articulating/establishing the desired outcome of the project will help to shape the approach to ensure effectiveness. A successful pilot provides a good foundation for scaling the approach, but it is important to define what scaling means here. What does it mean to expand into four countries? How many communities in each country? Is Namati equipped to successfully scale the approach at this scale?
• YES- The project is already working, and needs to structure and grow. However, I wonder how they deal with cases where different local communities hold different interests and positions. How do they select the communities they work with? How do they identify them? It is important to clarify the project' political (ideological?) options to clearly understand what community / case they support.

Feasibility of proposal (is this an idea that could be brought to life?):
• This is an idea that I would like to see brought to life as it was truly designed with the users in mind, as demonstrated by the testimonials from citizens in pilot communities.
• Yes, it is a great idea that needs to be supported, in order to bridge the gap between policies and laws, and the real experience of people. However, the project needs to clarify its political/ ideological options, and clarify the criteria to select communities they work with. The project does not consider the gap of power between women and men, especially on topics related to land, and may strengthen inequalities and discrimination against women. Gender should be part of the legals' training.

Other questions or suggestions our experts felt would support the assessment or success of your idea:
• Have you considered linking the Namati communities with one another to build on shared experiences, approaches, etc.? Creating a broader network of community paralegals, both within the countries themselves, but also across countries, could greatly benefit the programme and further support the programme participants.
• The assumption is that local communities interests' align with environmental interests, but it may not always be the case. For this reason, the project needs to explain how they select communities and cases. The project is gender neutral: the risk is high that it strengthens men's domination on topics related to land management, leaving women out of the process.
• More information about their use of the information collected would be interesting: how do they collect the info? can the community contribute through digital technologies (mobile)?

In case you missed it, check out this Storytelling Toolkit for inspiration for crafting strong and compelling stories: Storytelling is an incredibly useful tool to articulate an idea and make it come to life for those reading it. Don’t forget - June 16 at 11:59PM PST is your last day to make changes to your idea on the OpenIDEO platform.
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Many thanks to the expert reviewers for their thoughtful and important questions. They have been addressed in the attachment "Responses to Expert Feedback." We are happy to answer any additional questions via the comments.

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