Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor

Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor
Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor

The Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor was an independent international organization, hosted by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and established in 2005 as the “first global initiative to focus on the link between exclusion, poverty, and the law.” [1] Drawing upon three years of research, the Commission proposed strategies for creating inclusive development initiatives that would empower those living in poverty through increased protections and rights. Its final 2008 report, Making the Law Work for Everyone, argued that as many as 4 billion people worldwide are “robbed of the chance to better their lives and climb out of poverty, because they are excluded from the rule of law” [2]. In response, the Report proposed four “pillars” for legal empowerment of the poor (LEP), which, the Commission argued, would enable those living in poverty to become partners in, rather than passive recipients of, development programs. These four pillars are: access to justice and the rule of law, property rights, labor rights, and business rights [3].

Upon concluding its research and producing its final report, the Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor ceased to exist as an independent organization. However, the Commission’s findings continue to be an integral part of the UNDP’s Initiative on Legal Empowerment of the Poor, and have contributed to the creation of similar LEP initiaves in organizations such as the World Bank and the Open Society Foundations.


History of Legal Empowerment of the Poor

Before legal empowerment for the poor (LEP) emerged as a conceptual tool in 2003, development scholars such as Dan Banik argued that “the relationship between law and development in the international development discourse was traditionally very narrowly focused on law, lawyers and state institutions.”[4] The result, more often than not, was a “top-down” approach to development, in which aid initiatives often overlooked or excluded the voices of the very people they intended to help [5]

Legal empowerment of the poor, by contrast, sought to bring these previously excluded voices into the development discussion, while at the same time working to expand the rights and protections afforded to those living in poverty. Stephen Golub, one of the founding scholars in the field, argued that legal empowerment “puts community-driven and rights-based development into effect by offering concrete mechanisms, involving but not limited to legal services, that alleviate poverty, advance the rights of the disadvantaged, and make the rule of law more of a reality for them” [6]. Drawing upon these principles and bolstered by the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, the Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor emerged as an effort to convert theories of LEP into action.

Founding of the Commission

The Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor, co-chaired by former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright and Hernando de Soto, Peruvian economist and founder of the Institute for Liberty and Democracy (ILD), was launched in 2005 by a group of developing and industrialized countries including Canada, Denmark, Egypt, Finland, Guatemala, Iceland, India, Norway, Sweden, South Africa, Tanzania and the United Kingdom, and completed its work in 2008.


The Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor (CLEP) was made up of influential policymakers and practitioners from around the world who were believed to be uniquely well-positioned to advocate among their peers for legal reforms in developing countries. Given its unique structure, CLEP was seen as a powerful catalyst for change among global leaders and within the development community.


Board of Advisers

  • Robert Annibale, Global Director of Microfinance, Citigroup
  • Marek Belka, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE)
  • Diego Hidalgo, Founder, Club of Madrid
  • Donald Kaberuka, President, African Development Bank Group
  • Jean Lemierre, President, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development
  • Luis Alberto Moreno, President, Inter-American Development Bank
  • Kumi Naidoo, CEO, CIVICUS
  • Sheela Patel, Founder, Society for the Promotion of Area Resources (SPARC)
  • Jan Peterson, Chair, Huairou Commission
  • Juan Somavia, Director, International Labor Organization
  • Anna Tibaijuka, Executive Director, UN HABITAT
  • Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Chairperson, UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues
  • John Watson[disambiguation needed ], President, CARE Canada
  • Francisco Garza Zambrano, President, Cemex North America
  • Robert Zoellick, President, World Bank


Advocates of LEP argued that the only way to break new ground on legal empowerment was to learn from the experiences of those who live and work in slums and settlements around the world. Thus, CLEP, in conducting its research, partnered with grassroots organizations, governments and institutions to hear about the legal challenges faced by the poor. 22 National and Regional Consultations and 5 technical workgroups were hosted in Africa, South and Central Americas, Asia, the Middle East and Europe. These national and regional processes grounded the work of Legal Empowerment in local realities, and contributed to recommendations that reflected diverse cultural, socio-economic and political environments. CLEP’s final report, Making The Law Work For Everyone, argued that LEP initiatives must be grounded in four foundational “pillars”[7]:

• Access to Justice and the Rule of law: including the right to legal identity, removal of discriminatory laws against the poor, and increased access to both traditional and alternative justice systems

• Property rights: including recognition of alternative methods of individual and collective ownership

• Labor rights: workers’ rights, protections, and benefits

• Business rights: access to credit and support for the poor (particularly poor women) to start and operate small businesses

Critiques of the Commission

Though scholars and practitioners of LEP programs applaud the CLEP for bringing legal empowerment of the poor into the international limelight, many have critiqued its 2008 report on both technical and theoretical grounds. For example, Matthew Stephens, in his article "The Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor: An Opportunity Missed,"[8] argued that the Report lacked sufficient empirical data. Julio Faundez [9] argued that the Commission's policy recommendations were too vague to be implemented effectively.


  1. ^ [1] Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor (2008). Making The Law Work for Everyone.
  2. ^ [2] Ibid. p.1
  3. ^ [3] Ibid. p.31
  4. ^ Banik,D. (2009). The Potential of Legal Empowerment in Eradicating Poverty. Rights and Development Bulletin.1,13: p.5
  5. ^ Golub,S.(2003). Beyond the Rule of Law Orthodoxy- The Legal Empowerment Alternative. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
  6. ^ Ibid.p.3.
  7. ^ Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor (2008). Making The Law Work for Everyone. p. 31.
  8. ^ Stephens, M. (2009). The Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor: An Opportunity Missed. Hague Journal on the Rule of Law, 1, 132-157.
  9. ^ Faundez, J. (2009). Empowering Workers in the Informal Economy. Hague Journal on the Rule of Law, 1: 156–172.

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