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Legal empowerment of the poor: with a little help from their friends?

In 2005 the initiative to create a High Level Commission on the Legal Empowerment of the Poor, to be co-chaired by Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto and former US Foreign Affairs Secretary Madeleine Albright, was launched with strong support from the Norwegian government. This article first reviews some of the debate surrounding the initiative, giving special attention to the role of Norwegian civil society organisations that questioned central assumptions of the Commission as well as its composition and working procedures. Next, the article looks at the propositions made by the Commission on the Legal Empowerment of the Poor and argues that it was very much a top- down affair that called on those in power to behave in favour of the poor and relegated organisations of the poor and civil society to a supportive role. Issues of political power thus were downplayed. This also is reflected in the fact that the question of (re)distribution of assets is hardly addressed by the Commission. Questions of power or the distribution of assets were sidestepped by focusing primarily on the legal dimension and formalisation. And, although the Commission mentions macro-economic conditions it fails to critically analyse the conditions that account for poverty and informality, which basically are attributed to legal arrangements. Such an analysis would require a (critical) political economy perspective.

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