COVID-19: ‘This is not just a health crisis but also a justice crisis’

CIVICUS speaks to Abigail Moy, Director of the Legal Empowerment Network, the largest community of grassroots justice defenders in the world. Convened by the international civil society organisation (CSO) Namati, the Network brings together 2,343 organisations and 8,761 individuals from over 160 countries, all working to advance justice for all people. Around three years ago it launched Justice for All, a campaign to increase financing and protection for justice grassroots defenders worldwide.

Abigail Moy

What kind of work does the Legal Empowerment Network do?

The Legal Empowerment Network is a global and multidisciplinary network that convenes grassroots justice defenders worldwide. We are more than 2,000 grassroots organisations from approximately 160 countries around the world. Everyone in the Network is united by a dedication to helping communities to understand, use and shape the law. So whether they are working in environmental justice, women’s rights, health, education, or in any other sector, these justice defenders help communities to understand how policies, the law and governmental behaviour affect them and how they can be empowered to engage in these processes, use them and when necessary reform them to create a more just society.

Our work is based on three key pillars. The first is learning: we are a learning hub where grassroots organisations exchange experiences and learn from each other about their methods and the impact of their legal empowerment work. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, every year we designed and executed learning events that helped members explore practical solutions to justice problems. These offerings included an annual leadership course, in-person learning exchanges, online webinars and e-learning opportunities that we are further developing during the pandemic.

Our second pillar is advocacy and collective action. We work with our members to transform the policy environment to address injustices and promote legal empowerment at the national, regional and global levels. We often mobilise around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a means of addressing justice needs on the ground. Two of our central calls for advocacy and collective action include increasing financing and protection for justice defenders at all levels. These two priorities affect our members no matter what country are they in, and as such, financing and protection are the focus of our Justice for All campaign.

The third pillar is community building. We seek to build a stronger community amongst grassroots justice defenders so they can support and learn from each other. We aim to develop a stronger leadership core for the movement and find ways for people to improve their work by connecting, developing their thinking and working collaboratively.

All three pillars – learning, advocacy and community – feed into our ultimate vision, which is to cultivate a global movement for legal empowerment that mobilises millions of people to tackle collectively the greatest injustices of our time.

What is the role of Namati in relation with the Legal Empowerment Network?

Namati is the organisation that convenes the Network. It functions as its secretariat in many ways. We think of ourselves as an active member of the Network that happens to take care of aspects such as finances, coordination and maintaining infrastructure. We work with the Network Guidance Committee, a council of network members, to decide on the priorities and strategies of the Network and to organise learning and advocacy opportunities. Every year we survey Network members on what they want to do, and this information serves as a guidepost for planning. As a Network member, Namati feeds into this process, but we are one voice among many.

Namati also has country programmes. While members of the Network take on a wide range of justice challenges around the world, Namati works in close partnership with some of these members to take on three urgent issues – land and environmental justice, health justice and citizenship justice – in six countries: India, Kenya, Mozambique, Myanmar, Sierra Leone and the USA.

Can you tell us more about the Justice for All campaign?

We launched the Justice for All campaign almost three years ago. Our prior campaign, called Justice 2015, was a call to integrate justice in the SDGs. We succeeded, but after the SDGs were adopted there was nobody focusing on making good on the commitment in Goal 16 to ensure equal access to justice for all. In response, we launched the Justice for All campaign, which focuses on the fact that funding and protection for justice defenders are necessary foundations to meet Goal 16, and indeed any of the goals, and that legal empowerment must be supported.

Network members promote the Justice for All campaign in different ways in their countries and regions and at the global level. Some members have hosted meetings with their governments, other members of civil society and other stakeholders to discuss these issues and try to find policy solutions to increase funding and protection for grassroots justice defenders. Other members have focused on the global arena, approaching global donors and attending global events such as the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on the SDGs. Yet other members have focused on their respective regions, looking at regional bodies or agreements that they can influence.

As a Network member with strong global connections, Namati connects member experiences at the national level to the global level. We have done a lot to highlight grassroots experiences in our advocacy at the HLPF, the UN General Assembly and other high-level conferences and events, and have worked with major donors around the world to recognise the value of legal empowerment and the need for funding.

Have you needed to make any changes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic?

During the pandemic, the Legal Empowerment Network pivoted to respond directly and comprehensively to the crisis-driven needs of its members. To understand what their most urgent needs were, we administered a survey. We asked Network members how the pandemic was affecting them, how they were adapting, what kind of resources they needed to remain effective, what types of policy interventions were necessary to ensure a just response, and how we could help them.

Regarding the challenges faced by Network members, we classified survey responses into four categories: remote work challenges, financial challenges, logistics and mobility challenges, and safety, security and health challenges. Remote work turned out to be a huge problem for Network members, as did finances, due to both increased expenses and reduced revenues.

In response to the survey, we put together resources adjusted to their needs. First, we set up an online hub that offers multilingual resources to help legal empowerment groups understand the pandemic, get truthful and reliable information and identify ways to mitigate harm. We put together a brief that answers common questions about COVID-19, with useful advice on how grassroots justice organisations can prepare and protect themselves. We tailored this information to address challenges faced by specific subsets of Network members, such as those living or working in crowded areas. The information was sourced from key public health authorities such as the World Health Organization and compiled by public health experts.

Second, we published a policy brief, ‘Grassroots Justice in a Pandemic: Ensuring a Just Response and Recovery’, that makes recommendations to policy makers, donors and multilateral institutions on how to fund and protect grassroots justice defenders during and after the pandemic. We shared it widely with stakeholders such as governmental and philanthropic donors.

Third, we facilitated a number of conversations among grassroots practitioners, examining legal empowerment work during the pandemic, via a series of conference calls and webinars. These have been taking place over the past few months. Hundreds of members participated in these conversations. The ensuing thematic and regional conversations served as venues for discussion on best practices and learning around how members are adapting their efforts, tracking and responding to human rights violations arising from the crisis, and accessing financial support and other needed resources. In these conversations, we also explored what we can do together to help each other move forward. We compiled best practices of remote working and are preparing more materials on resources, services and techniques that can be used for working during the pandemic.

We realised that in a crisis such as this you can’t do business as usual, so we got rid of our annual plan and started from scratch to do what we needed to do.

What has the Justice for All campaign achieved so far?

The campaign has helped to weave a common narrative that highlights grassroots perspectives at high-level global events, encourages dialogue and public understanding, and urges action on the two key themes of financing and protection for grassroots justice defenders.

At the national level, it has helped people articulate their needs and translate them into longer-term advocacy efforts. Network members said that the campaign’s policy brief was incredibly useful in their discussions with their national governments about why there should be local funding for community paralegal groups.

At the global level, we have shifted ongoing dialogue and norms. Before, there had never been any talk about what was needed to advance access to justice and achieve Goal 16; there was no acknowledgement that justice services required funding and that the people doing the work needed to be safe. Right now, these issues are being taken up and addressed at a high level, and have been integrated into reports and major agendas. So we feel that we have influenced the international dialogue around justice defenders, and while there is more work to be done, that in itself is a victory.

In the financial front, the Justice For All campaign has influenced donors to commit new resources to access to justice and legal empowerment. During the pandemic, the campaign adjusted its focus and established a COVID-19 Grassroots Justice Fund, and successfully rallied a number of donors to make contributions. This was in response to our members’ desperate need of funding when the pandemic hit. We realised that the funding that they needed wasn’t massive; a lot could be done with just a small injection of money, for instance in the form of one-time grants of a few thousand dollars. Relatively modest funds could make a difference and help address urgent justice issues that are entwined with the pandemic. We launched this fund in July with the aim of raising US$1 million, and we think we are going to get there. We have received a lot of support, we have already accepted the first applications, and the money should be distributed within the next month. These are small requests, of between US$3,000 and US$20,000, for grassroots justice groups to cover supplies, training, salaries and anything else needed to keep them afloat. The idea behind the fund is that the pandemic is not just a health issue; it is also a justice issue and we need to sustain the defenders that are helping communities to face the justice crisis.

What kind of support from international civil society would you need to be able to continue your work?

Our survey asked our members exactly that question, and 58 per cent answered that they needed technological support. The nature of legal empowerment work is very much a trust-building exercise that usually calls for face-to-face interaction. Most of the grassroots groups we work with are used to going out to talk to with community members, convening face-to-face community meetings and educating people. They are not used to working remotely. They are not familiar with working with apps and they don’t have enough devices to do so. Additionally, 67 per cent responded that they need capacity-building support. This support is needed both to adapt to technology and to reimagine ways to do their work remotely or while social distancing. Last but not least, 88 per cent responded that what they need from international civil society is financial support. And they made it clear that it is not just about more funding now, but rather about more sustainable and more reliable funding going forward.

Get in touch with the Legal Empowerment Network through Namati’s website or Facebook page, and follow @GlobalNamati on Twitter.

 

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