VIVEK MARU

United States,

Vivek Maru is building the field of global legal empowerment by taking localized justice efforts, rigorously documenting their impact, weaving them into a cohesive network.

This profile below was prepared when Vivek Maru was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014.

INTRODUCTION

Vivek Maru is building the field of global legal empowerment by taking localized justice efforts, rigorously documenting their impact, weaving them into a cohesive network.




THE NEW IDEA

Vivek Maru is taking localized justice efforts, documenting their impact, weaving them into a cohesive network, and ultimately building the field of global legal empowerment. The core of Vivek’s work, through his organization Namati, is to connect all the efforts in legal empowerment globally to provide the evidence of their impact, advocate for legal empowerment as a global priority, and establish the field of legal empowerment in the way that primary health care has been established. 

There have been numerous efforts in community justice, but most existing programs work in isolation and at a small scale. They rarely document their own impact, and they often don’t have access to lessons learned by their peers across borders. 

Namati champions a method – grassroots legal advocates, or “community paralegals”. These paralegals are trained in basic law and in skills like mediation, organizing, education, and advocacy. They form a creative, low-cost, problem-solving frontline that can engage formal and traditional legal and administrative systems alike. Traditionally people have relied on lawyers to provide access to the law. But lawyers are costly, and focused on formal court channels that are impractical for most people. The vast majority of legal aid is focused on defending people charged with capital offenses. 

Namati is working to provide a common language and platform for learning about best practices and advocating for primary justice services. While there is robust academic and high-level political discourse on the relationship between rule of law and development, these conversations were largely disconnected from grassroots efforts to build the rule of law. Vivek is connecting the academic with the grassroots and the grassroots efforts with each other in order to advocate for legal empowerment as a basic right for everyone.




THE PROBLEM

The UN estimates that 4 billion people around the world live outside the protection of the law. For these people the law is an abstraction, or a threat, but not something they can use to exercise their basic rights. As a result they can be unfairly driven from their land, denied essential services, excluded from society, and intimidated by violence. 

The human rights movement has led nearly all nations to endorse human rights at least in name. Organizations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and local campaigners can shame governments for violations. But shaming alone cannot address every breach of basic rights. A juvenile is wrongfully detained; an agricultural loan is held up for a bribe; a textile factory poisons a river. It is only through a functioning, accessible legal system that communities can protect their rights in daily life. 

The parallel movement for development confronts the same problem. Governments and agencies have sought to alleviate poverty by fostering economic growth and by improving essential services for healthcare, education and water. But it’s become clear that development depends on communities’ ability to understand and use the law. Investments in industry and agriculture do not lead to sustainable use of natural resources or equitable benefits for local people if the rights of those who live and depend on the land are insecure. Investments in healthcare and education do not yield results if communities do not have recourse when medicines and books aren’t delivered, or when nurses and teachers don’t show up to work. 

Legal empowerment, then, is critical for realizing the great struggles for human rights and development. Traditionally, legal aid has been reactive, working to defend people accused of serious crimes. This kind of legal aid does not address the most common and most incapacitating legal issues faced by large numbers of people such as land disputes, identity papers, access to basic health and education services. Even if a society were able to afford a lawyer in every village, lawyers tend to focus on formal court solutions and cannot navigate plural legal systems (customary and formal). The local grassroots efforts do not benefit from the experience of other efforts nor can they contribute to any sort of knowledge and evidence base. They tend to remain isolated and focused on one specific issue or claim. 

In 1978, the World Health Organization made the Declaration of Alma Ata and launched the primary health care movement. This landmark declaration changed the definition of health (not just the absence of disease), committed to universal access to basic health services, and shifted attention from large hospitals to community-based health workers. Alma Ata provided a framework for action that rallied international agencies and governments to implement comprehensive primary health care globally. Now, when someone starts a health program, there is wealth of resources from which to draw – manuals, health protocol, finance, etc. – but legal empowerment lacks an analogous global discourse – many do not benefit from experience of others or empirical evidence.




THE STRATEGY

Vivek draws inspiration and to some extent uses this health experience as a model for what is needed in the field of legal empowerment. He is working to change the definition of legal aid (not simply legal services to defend against a criminal accusation), to commit to universal access to the power of the law, and cultivate and strengthen the role of community paralegals. 

There are three interconnected elements to Namati’s strategy: grassroots innovation, structural change and growing the field. Vivek’s ability to work across these levels of scale is an integral part of his strategy and his success. The local level community paralegal work feeds into national level policy which then feeds into the global field and movement for legal empowerment. 

At a local level, Namati deploys community paralegals to address some of the greatest justice issues of our times: protecting natural resource rights in the context of the global land rush, ensuring that essential services like healthcare and education are accountable to local communities, and securing citizenship rights for stateless people. Legal empowerment programs often combine a small corps of lawyers with a larger frontline of community paralegals who are trained in law and the workings of government. Paralegals use advocacy, mediation, organizing, and education to assist citizens in finding concrete solutions to instances of injustice. Like primary health workers, community paralegals are close to the communities in which they work and deploy a flexible set of tools. They are also connected to lawyers and the possibility of litigation or high-level advocacy when frontline methods fail. To date Namati has built paralegal efforts with local partner organizations in eight countries – five in Africa (Sierra Leone, Liberia, Uganda, Mozambique, and Kenya) and three in South Asia (Burma, India, and Bangladesh). 

Success is measured by the ability to achieve concrete remedies to justice problems. Some examples of targets for Namati’s paralegal efforts in 2014 include: 

 

- Assist 700 people from the traditionally stateless Nubian community of Kenya to obtain legal identity documents and secure citizenship rights. 

- Work with communities in Sierra Leone and Mozambique to resolve 130 cases of breakdown in healthcare delivery (e.g. drug stockouts, lack of water supply at health clinic, absentee nurse, lack of confidentiality for HIV status, etc.). 

- Support fisher people and farmers on the Indian coast to pursue remedies for 100 violations of environmental law. 

- Secure land rights documentation for 5000 Burmese farmers, including at least 10 cases in which we reclaim land previously stolen by the state or private firms. 

- Assist 80 communities in Liberia, Uganda, and Mozambique to secure their customary land rights for the first time, adopt rules for natural resource use, and establish structures for local land governance. 

 

At a national level, Namati collects data rigorously on every case and uses that information to advocate for systemic, large-scale reforms. They demonstrate that not only can community paralegals help bring good laws to life, their work can also lead to positive changes in the law itself, and in the institutions by which law is applied. Success is measured by the number of policy reform proposals growing out of grassroots experience that are adopted and implemented. Examples include a more equitable legal identify process in Kenya, a new process for documenting and registering customary land rights in Liberia; better enforcement by the Coastal Zone Management Authorities in India, and a more accessible Burmese land registration process. In Sierra Leone, Namati and its partners were at the forefront of developing new legislation that now formally recognizes paralegals as providers of justice services and sets standards for overseeing their work. 

 

Finally at a global level, Namati hosts a network of 340 organizations from every region in the world, and is fostering greater learning and collaboration among these groups. The aggregated work of these organizations provides a powerful evidence base for the impact of community paralegals in achieving justice on a wide range of social issues. For example, Namati recently completed the first ever review of legal empowerment programs globally (199 programs reviewed) to document the impact and best practices of these efforts. Namati is growing a mature global field around community paralegals and primary justice services analogous to the robust field of primary healthcare. The effort is gaining momentum. At the African regional meeting in 2012, more than 50 organizations adopted the Kampala Declaration on Community Paralegals, which calls on governments to recognize paralegals and invest in the scale-up of paralegal services. The Declaration has been used by paralegal organizations to advocate for legal aid reforms in Zambia, South Africa, Tanzania, and Rwanda. The network also serves as the core for global advocacy efforts to make justice central to the post 2015 development goals so that they include rights to legal identity, to legal participation and to legal services among other things. Finally the network is a rich source of resources and best practices where practitioners can share and connect to raise the quality of community paralegal work. By the end of 2014, Namati anticipates 450 organizations actively participating in the network.




THE PERSON

Vivek is the son of immigrant parents from India. His earliest influences came from his family’s commitment to social justice and leadership. His grandfather was a Gandhian who ran a small printing press and spoke frequently to Vivek about deeper systemic change. Both his parents instilled a deep commitment to service and an appreciation of Indian history and culture. As a high school student, Vivek’s mother encouraged him to get involved in protesting some deep budget cuts in education. Vivek organized classmates to go door to door to advocate against the budget cuts. Vivek’s organizing work not only contributed to the defeat of the budget cuts, but Vivek became the first student representative on the school board. 

In college, Vivek wrote his thesis on Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. After college, he spent a year in India, hoping to learn about the surviving legacy of Gandhian social action. He lived in a hut of dung and sticks in Kutch, a remote, arid district in western India. 

Vivek went to study law, and nearly dropped out in the initial months because the practice of the law seemed incompatible with the Gandhian perspective. Gandhi’s approach aims for reconciliation and transformation; lawyers seemed to conceive of conflicts in narrow, adversarial terms. And while Gandhi valued the constructive process of building more democratic, more humane institutions, the law seemed reactive: something bad happens, and then the lawyers show up, talking about justice. 

In 2003, Vivek moved to Sierra Leone, soon after the end of the 11-year civil war. There was a consensus that arbitrariness in governance and maladministration of justice were among the root causes of the war, and a desire among emerging civil society organizations to provide some sort of direct assistance to citizens who face injustice in their daily lives. 

But it was an open question what that assistance should look like, given the plural legal system—with only a hundred lawyers in the country, and more than ninety of them in the capital Freetown—and the damaged social infrastructure. With Simeon Koroma, Vivek co-founded Timap for Justice which trained a frontline of community paralegals in basic law and in tools like mediation, advocacy, education, and organizing. During those years, living in Sierra Leone and working with Timap, Vivek began to see that a synthesis was possible between the law and a Gandhian approach to social action. At their best, Timap paralegals draw on both traditional and modern law to generate creative, practical solutions to the problems people face. And a system of community paralegals can contribute constructively to a more peaceful, more democratic social landscape. 

Vivek founded Namati in 2011. Namati is a Sanskrit word that means “to shape something into a curve.” Martin Luther King Jr. said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Namati is dedicated to bending that curve. 

In college, Vivek wrote his thesis on Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. After college, he spent a year in India, hoping to learn about the surviving legacy of Gandhian social action. He lived in a hut of dung and sticks in Kutch, a remote, arid district in western India. During this time, law kept coming up as the language that translates democracy and politics into social action. 

Vivek went to study law, and nearly dropped out in the initial months because the practice of the law seemed incompatible with the Gandhian perspective. Gandhi’s approach aims for reconciliation and transformation; lawyers seemed to conceive of conflicts in narrow, adversarial terms. And while Gandhi valued the constructive process of building more democratic, more humane institutions, the law seemed reactive: something bad happens, and then the lawyers show up, talking about justice. 

In 2003, Vivek moved to Sierra Leone, soon after the end of the 11-year civil war. There was a consensus that arbitrariness in governance and maladministration of justice were among the root causes of the war, and a desire among emerging civil society organizations to provide some sort of direct assistance to citizens who face injustice in their daily lives. 

But it was an open question what that assistance should look like, given the plural legal system—with only a hundred lawyers in the country, and more than ninety of them in the capital Freetown—and the damaged social infrastructure. With Simeon Koroma, Vivek co-founded Timap for Justice which trained a frontline of community paralegals in basic law and in tools like mediation, advocacy, education, and organizing. During those years, living in Sierra Leone and working with Timap, Vivek began to see that a synthesis was possible between the law and a Gandhian approach to social action. At their best, Timap paralegals draw on both traditional and modern law to generate creative, practical solutions to the problems people face. And a system of community paralegals can contribute constructively to a more peaceful, more democratic social landscape. 

Vivek founded Namati in 2011. Namati is a Sanskrit word that means “to shape something into a curve.” Martin Luther King Jr. said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Namati is dedicated to bending that curve.




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