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Sustainable Livelihoods and Legal Empowerment

This article was prepared to inform the work of the Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor. It provides many insights which are still valuable today and as such I republish this now as this blog.

The livelihoods of the poor are based on the activities, assets and entitlements available to them, which they can use to get themselves out of poverty. Activities include working for an employer (labor) or for oneself (entrepreneurship). Assets include human, social, natural, and physical and economic capital; the relationship between the owner and other persons relative to the asset as recognized by the state is referred to as property rights. Entitlements are used in this context to refer to the protection of freedoms and provision of public goods and services based on equitable access to justice and the rule of law. An agenda for legal empowerment of the poor can therefore be developed on the basis of labor rights, legal instruments for entrepreneurship, property rights and access to justice and rule of law. This is the basis of the work of the Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor.

The Commission sees itself as a subset of the Sustainable Livelihoods analytical framework. It takes as its starting point that “poverty is man made and a policy failure” and it recognizes that this failure is directly linked to the appropriation by powerful groups of the five assets (i.e. Natural Capital, Physical Capital, Financial Capital, Social Capital, Human Capital) in the Sustainable Livelihoods framework. As such, the Commission focuses on means to strengthen institutional mechanisms that provide economic opportunities for the poor and that protect their interests towards their endeavor to escape poverty. Thus, the Commission for the Legal Empowerment of the Poor reframes the global development agenda to realize sustainable and, overall as well as individual, economic development through equitable institutional reform.

The Legal Empowerment agenda therefore focuses on Social Capital formation and the role of the State as the arbiter in this process. This means that Legal Empowerment is concerned with the political processes as reflections of culture, which in turn influences how these processes reveal themselves in the legal system, in national policies, which guide both political and above all economic “competition”, and in public institutions, which guide and/or deliver services to the citizens reflecting agreed (user) rights and entitlements linked to the other four assets in the Sustainable Livelihood framework.

The Commission recognizes that at the core of empowerment is the poor having a voice and identity in their community to address their concerns and to successfully fight the institutional constraints that keep them in the vicious cycle of poverty. Accordingly, the Commission recognizes the indispensability of promoting and facilitating membership-based organization of the poor to integrate themselves in the policy-making and rule-setting institutions and to be in the position to demand legal reforms from above to correct the failures of markets, public policies, and legal institutions.

The Commission, thus, aims to promote the state’s efforts towards the institutional establishment of protection and opportunities in line with the needs of its people who are put in the position to make the state accountable for its actions. Therefore, legal empowerment demands not only specific substantive legal changes, but also a new focus on the processes by which laws are made, executed, and adjudicated. Legal empowerment requires more participatory and accountable forms of lawmaking and public administration, giving the poor greater voice in the process and ownership over the outcomes.

The Commission, thus, recommends that the state, representing the interest of the poor, promote reform in the legal and administrative institutional framework to ensure that the poor are entitled to take full advantage of all opportunities and resources. These legal reforms reinforce that universally recognized Rule of Law1 principles, and by default human rights principles deeply embedded in most legal institution framed post UDHR in 1948, be equitably applied by the state to all its nationals. Premised on such Rule of Law, institutional legal systems will equitably provide adequate protection and create overdue opportunities for the active participation of the poor as a manifestation of their citizenry legal empowerment. That is, the state should give all its constituents, including the poor, increased ownership in the restructuring of their legal and social environment in such a way that their productivity is progressively enhanced and the poor are enabled to make their life more decent.

In sum, on the input side, the emphasis of legal empowerment is on participatory and accountable forms of law making and public administration, giving the poor voice and increased ownership of the framing of their legal and social environment (input-legitimacy of the law). Regarding the means, legal empowerment of the poor stresses the critical importance of (1) granting legal identity and access to justice to all human persons, small business corporations, and civil society associations, (2) securing property rights of the poor as asset holders through comprehensive and context-based property rights systems, (3) protecting the poor as workers, and (4) creating an enabling business environment for small entrepreneurs and the self-employed. On the output side, a result oriented legal empowerment agenda stresses the effective protection of livelihoods of the

1On these principles Justice Kenned y writes: The Rule of Law requires fidelity to the following principles:

The Law is superior to, and thus binds, the government and all its officials.
The Law affirms and protects the equality of all persons. By way of example only, the law may not discriminate against persons by reason of race, color, religion, or gender.
The law must respect the dignity and preserve the human rights of all persons.
The Law must establish and respect the constitutional structures necessary to secure a free and decent society and to give all citizens a meaningful voice in formulating and enacting the rules that govern them.
The Law must devise and maintain systems to advise all persons of their rights and just expectations, and to empower them to seek redress for grievances and fulfillment of just expectations without fear of penalty or retaliation.

poor and, more originally, the measurable creation of new opportunities which enable the poor to make their life more decent and to escape the poverty trap using their own energy and talents (output-legitimacy of the law).

The Commission views the concept of “property rights” as encompassing both the right to protection against peremptory expropriation of property without compensation, and also the right to a reasonable opportunity to acquire property without unfair exclusion. An appropriately designed system of property rights — one that provides both protection and fair access — is crucial to empowering poor people to break out of the cycle of poverty. Secure property rights enable poor individuals to accumulate property and to invest in the resources they hold, increasing productivity and efficiency. Property rights allow people to pool their assets into transparent structures of co-ownership, creating greater economic and social leverage. Reliable and equitable property rights systems help settle competing property claims and contribute to a more sustainable resolution of conflicts and to the prevention of violence. Furthermore, the increased social stability and trust emanating from robust property rights systems creates appropriate environments for business and investment.

An equitable and efficient system of property rights, however, is not sufficient. Legal empowerment of the poor requires not only a system that provides protection and access to property, but also an environment in which the poor have the ability to accumulate resources through their own initiative. In other words, poor people must be able to leverage their existing economic assets — modest though these might be — into greater economic opportunities.

For many poor people, their labor (their human capital) is the primary or only existing asset. Yet hundreds of millions of poor people sell their labor in the informal economy, without meaningful legal regulation. Appropriate legal protection of labor – and laborers – is therefore critical to helping the poor work their way out of poverty. As with property rights, the Commission recognizes that a well-designed system of labor rights must provide both protection and opportunity. On the opportunity side, the Commission recognizes that excessive or inefficient labor regulation can drive more poor people into the informal economy, effectively depriving them of the opportunity to realize the benefits of the formal labor market. At the same time, the Commission recognizes the need for well-designed labor regulations that protect vulnerable workers from exploitation. Good labor regulations must provide workers with this sort of protection without diminishing their opportunities for lawful employment.

While millions of poor people are wage laborers, there are also millions of self-employed poor people who operate their own small business ventures. Many of these entrepreneurs operate in the informal economy, without substantial legal protections, because the legal system does not serve their interests. The Commission believes that appropriate reforms can make a set of legal tools and institutions accessible to these “extra-legal” or informal businesses, and that doing so will considerably enhance business opportunities for the poor by providing protection, lowering costs, and making credit, capital, and product markets more accessible and affordable. This, in turn, will lead to the creation of more and better jobs, more opportunities for would-be entrepreneurs, and more avenues of escape from the cycle of poverty.

These and other legal reforms are meant to provide poor people with the protections and opportunities that they need to realize the potential returns on their human and physical capital. The Commission recognizes, however, that reform of the “law on the books” is not, by itself, sufficient to change the “law in action” that poor people experience in their daily lives. Even the best pro-poor legal rules are not worth the paper on which they are printed if poor people lack access to a justice system that can make these rights a meaningful social reality. Yet poor people throughout the world face innumerable barriers to securing redress of their grievances through the legal system. If these barriers are not reduced or eliminated, no anti-poverty strategy that relies on legal empowerment can be successful. Therefore, the Commission recognizes the need to improve access to justice for the poor. Empowering poor people to lift themselves out of poverty is not achievable without policies and institutions that empower the poor to use the legal system effectively to secure their legal rights and interests.


The Commission emphasizes the indispensability of organized mobilization and action “from below” – by civil society organizations, and most crucially by organizations of the poor themselves, supported by the international community – to realize sustainable reform “from above” initiated and directed locally. In the absence of such an active participation of the poor, their exclusion will impact negatively not only their own livelihoods but compromise the sustainable development and human security conditions of the community they all belong to. Thus, the Commission aims to open institutional spectrums of political protection and economic opportunities with a bottom-up focus of making all citizens participating shareholders in their community according to the rule of law and accepted international human rights principles.

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Gentle Action, Quantum Physics and Consciousness: What insights for Peace Building, Environmental Action and Poverty Reduction.

    1. During my work on environment, poverty and then sustainable livelihoods and sustainable development over the last 30 years I have witnessed the calls for action of all kinds. Reflection on these lead to some insights, similar to where David Peats Gentle Action leads.
    2. The environmental debates around doom and gloom, the carrying capacity of the planet and of local and global ecosystems, over and under consumption, etc. The calls for difficult policy action involving the most intransigent international negotiations like climate change and the forward and backward lurches of the development process. The bottom line has been changing human values especially greed. We started to realise that we really needed was a way to manage ourselves not the environment for example. Policy and programmatic interventions seem to address symptoms not causes. The calls have been for holistic approaches, increased coordination and integration, and public education and awareness. These alleviate mainly symptoms with some having an influence on causes.
    3. And in the poverty work, we were willing to consider income generation, welfare options such as safety nets, job creation, provision of basic services but not underlying structural challenges like power relations between those had and those who did not, legal rights of the poor or unequal access to or ownership of assets. Charity was fine but not equality.
    4. At the heart of much violent conflict was self and other, power and control, greed and apparent scarcity, ideology and politics.
    5. All these problems of the environment, poverty and violent conflict have been called wicked problems because solutions are not obvious, and seem to go beyond the realm of traditional policy, governance, technology or project interventions.
    6. Many of these problems might originate in structural flaws of our dominant civilizational narrative, but also perhaps also in an inadequate conception of who or what we are as humans. (Use Lents summary and my addition). But there has been an over-reliance on the outer (see Wilber’s quadrants). The inner has been neglected. (For recent work on the outer: Governance and the Law WDR 2017 is quite good)

Eight Structural Flaws in the Western World View (Jeremy Lent in TIKKUN) and from his Book: The Patterning Instinct. (2017)

Structural FlawNew Foundation
1. Humans are fundamentally SelfishHumans are fundamentally cooperative
2. Genes are fundamentally selfishNature is a network
3. Humans are separate from natureHumans are an integral part of nature
4. Nature is a machineNature is a self-generating fractal
5. GDP is a good measure of prosperityMeasure a country’s genuine progress
6. The earth can support limitless growthGrowth quality not consumption
7. Technology has the solutionSystemic change not techno fix
8. The Universe is essentially meaninglessThe Universe as a web of meaning
DualityScience and Non-duality
  1. While most of will agree with Einstein that our current problems will not be solved by the same level of thinking which created them, we do not usually go the next step of outlining what that new level of thinking might look like. It might be different thinking (so called out of the box) but not usually a different level i.e. a paradigm shifting level.
  2. Some recent insights from complexity theory, quantum physics and consciousness studies might be helpful. Complexity theory provides insights into emergent phenomena, self-organisation, tipping points, non-linear systems behaviour, feedback loops and embracing uncertainty. Quantum physics helps explain in a scientific way how we participate in creating our realty. Consciousness studies helps understand what we are as humans. Combining quantum physics and consciousness studies is providing a deep and revolutionary understanding of ourselves, our world and our place in the universe. We see the possibility that matter arises out of consciousness. A leader in these connected fields David Peat has suggested that these new insights might guide our action in new and different way and help us resolve these wicked problems. He calls it Gentle or Subtle Action.
  3. Subtle action : 1) Acting at tipping points or riding appropriate feedback loops which allow a small intervention to produce a large desirable change in which the system itself does most of the work. (Use CAS theory for this). 2) Going beyond the apparent dualistic world to action from an understanding of non-duality. 3) Going beyond action based on thinking to actions based on our underlying awareness or consciousness (which is common, universal and infinite). Rough parallels might include energy generation from burning fossil fuels to water, wind or working at the atomic and nuclear levels OR computing from quantum/molecular levels compared to the limited digital level.
  4. David Peat’s Gentle Action (2008) Bringing Creative Change to a Turbulent World. Shifts from a Newtonian clockwork, mechanical, linear and reductionist world view to one based on systems thinking, holism, organic, chaos and complexity theory. It argues for creative suspension to allow for creative confusion which allows self-organisation to produce something novel, effortless action (wu-wei) based on the spontaneity of the present moment, the now, without regard for reward, and working in harmony with the system or universe not resisting change but flowing with it. He emphasises trust and social capital, supports Gandhi’s ahimsa not only non-harming but recognising the capacity for truth and trust in the other and helping them restoring that capacity if it seems temporarily lost. He cites several examples of gentle action including Heifer International, Grameen Bank, Each one Teach One (Paulo Freire), Gaviotas and Native American Talking Circles.
  5. Leading from the Emerging Future. (Otto Scharmer) Theory U. The ecological gap is based on the divide between self and nature, the social divide between self and other, the spiritual-cultural divide between self and Self. Today’s real economy works as a set of highly interdependent ecosystems, locally embedded but globally interlinked; but the consciousness of the players within them is fragmented into a set of ego systems. The gap between ecosystem reality and ego system consciousness may well be the most important leadership challenge today in business, government, and in civil society. The ability to shift from reacting against the past to leaning into and presencing an emerging future. It requires us to suspend our judgements, redirect our attention, let go of the past, lean into the future that wants to emerge through us and let it come. Exploring the edges of the self means shifting the inner place from which one operates. Shift from “form follows function” to “form follows consciousness”. The blind spot in leadership: the inner place from which we operate. (See loc 354 to 400 in Otto’s book (Kindle version). Or Huffpost: Collective Mindfulness (From Collective Sleepwalking). Key point: Acting from the world we want to create rather from the one we don’t want. (Similarity with the assets approach?). Open Mind, (IQ), Open Heart (EQ) and Open Will (SQ: Spirituality Quotient).
  6. Joseph Jaworski. Synchronicity and inner leadership.
  7. David Bohm. (On Dialogue). In a group of thirty or forty, many may find it very hard to communicate unless there is a set purpose, or unless somebody is leading it. Why is that? For one thing, everybody has different assumptions and opinions. They are basic assumptions, not merely superficial assumptions – such as assumptions about the meaning of life; about your own self-interest, your country’s interest, or your religious interest; about what you really think is important. And these assumptions are defended when they are challenged. People frequently can’t resist defending them, and they tend to defend them with an emotional charge. It is important to see that the different opinions that you have are the result of past thought: all your experiences, what other people have said, and what not. That is all programmed into your memory. You may then identify with those opinions and react to defend them. The collective dimension of the human being, where we have a considerable number of people, has a qualitatively new feature: it has great power – potentially, or even actually. And in dialogue we discuss how to bring that to some sort of coherence and order. The question is really: do you see the necessity of this process? That’s the key question. If you see that it is absolutely necessary, then you have to do something. By its very nature Dialogue is not consistent with any predetermined purposes beyond the interest of its participants in the unfoldment and revelation of the deeper collective meanings that may be revealed. Move to the single (collective) intelligence of the group.
  8. William Isaacs. Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together. (Based on Bohm’s thinking on Dialogue). Most of our workplace conversations are characterised by rigid roles, by all movers pushing past one another to champion their views; by disabled bystanders paralysed at not being able to bring their voice; or by cowed followers fearful of anything but the meekest agreement to the voices of authority. This book considers the architecture of the invisible, a subtle world of forces born of intention and awareness. Here we begin to see conversation as an aperture through which social realities emerge. David Bohm saw the seed as an aperture through which the tree emerges. It organises the processes of growth which eventually create the tree. Just so our conversations organise the processes and structures which shape our collective futures. The nature of the aperture rests in the spirit that shapes the undertaking.
  9. Conclusion: This blog raises a bunch of ideas and thoughts which I believe can work together to provide deep and profound insights into understanding some of the most important and yet intransigent problems of the today such as climate change, sustainable peace, sustainable and inclusive growth and the eradication of poverty and hunger.