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Legal Empowerment of the Poor: Lessons Learned from Indonesia


Legal empowerment of the poor is not new in Indonesia. For decades civil society organizations have been advocating on legal rights and improved access for the poor. Legal aid groups have been giving free legal access to evicted small traders and dispossessed slum dwellers, and women’s right activists are fighting violence against the mostly female migrant workers. Environment advocates have been defending forest dwellers’ land rights while campaigning for natural resources protection, and urban poor defenders are supporting the informal sector’s rights to secure tenure.

However, these efforts often fail to meet the expected results due to various obstacles: having to fight much stronger economic or political interests, facing lack of higher level commitments and short term bureaucrat’s attention only in between elections, etc. Also most of these efforts are small and local, with limited capacities for replications and up scaling; while Indonesia is such a huge country. With decentralization of power and resources to more than 440 local authorities in cities and districts since the year 2000, they are also overwhelmed in their outreach efforts throughout the country.

This is the motivation for making stronger efforts to advocate for mainstreaming legal empowerment agenda in national and local governments’ policies, and to develop better synergies between governments, civil society and the private sector on this endeavor. In addition, international support is also needed to stimulate this legal empowerment mainstreaming effort, hence we in Indonesia welcome the formation of the Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor.

The Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor (subsequently referred to as “the Commission”) has given us an opportunity to compile views and facts on actual situation through the national consultation and its preparatory works in Indonesia last year. We welcome the Commission’s aims to provide justice and economic opportunity, not only as a prerogative for a few people, but rather as the right for all. For Indonesia, the establishment of the Commission highlights the assurance that our continuing efforts to empower the poor are not occurring as an isolated phenomenon in Indonesia only, but are part of a broader collective effort throughout the global community.

Many initiatives have been undertaken by several parties in order to end global poverty, spearheaded by the holistic efforts of aiming to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015. This commitment of the international community to reach their vision to attain sustainable social and economic development is approached by creating and improving global collaborations and partnerships to fulfill basic human rights.

The formation of this Commission is an approach to addressing poverty challenges using a particular entry point, which is legal empowerment. The Commission’s belief that legal empowerment is a key prerequisite of ending poverty, highlights a simple basic idea: how can legal access and economic opportunity be acquired not only by a few people, but also by the poor. In the process of creating new paths for the legal empowerment of the poor, the Commission realized that the next focus is to compare lessons from experiences in the past. Programs that have accomplished empowerment are very valuable and should be studied in order to acquire a concept that fits well and is successful for ending poverty.

At the beginning I doubted the idea of the Commission and was wondering why there was a need for such a Commission, as challenges to legal empowerment of the poor lies at the country level. Also, privatization, individual rights that destroy communal rights, neo-liberalism, etc. are usually terms that provoke allergy to those who are battling poverty, especially among Civil Society Organizations. My doubt of the Commission’s existence was resolved when it did start to work, and more so during the processes in Indonesia, when it facilitates opportunities for all stakeholders to sit together and face this common challenge together. Also, from my experience in promoting the MDGs, I really feel that legal access issues are big obstacles often faced by the poor, and am hopeful that a global advocacy on it will catalyze the drive to tackle the challenges.

The Commission divides legal empowerment of the poor efforts into four interrelated clusters: (1) Access to Justice and Rule of Law; (2) Property Rights; (3) Labor Rights; and (4) Entrepreneurship of Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises; which are also implemented in Indonesia. In order to grasp the accomplished empowerment initiatives, the Commission designed a space for consultation at the national level in Indonesia, where it collaborated with the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI – Yayasan Lembaga Bantuan Hukum Indonesia) as the secretariat and United Nation Development Programme (UNDP) Jakarta as the financial and program support. They had organized a series of supporting activities in Indonesia during the last months of 2006.

Focus on the four issues mentioned above was also affirmed by establishing four working groups, which each consists of baseline researches and multi-stakeholder exchanges. These events involved various stakeholders, including policy makers from local to national level in focus group discussions as well as several multi-stakeholders consultations. The working groups have generated final reports in the form of information and policy guidelines.

The initiative in Indonesia did not seek to totally reconstruct the present legal and economic system in order to accommodate the legal empowerment of the poor. Conversely, the organizers wanted to listen to the opinion from every element of the community, non-governmental organizations, the government in local and central level, as well as the private sector, on accomplished experiences related to legal empowerment of the poor.

The National Consultation, as mentioned above, has provided real benefit for Indonesia. Many practitioners that are involved in legal empowerment of the poor efforts and many more valuable practices have risen to the surface, but to date they have yet to bring any significant contribution to actual improvements of the welfare of the poor. The national consultation in Indonesia was organized in order to strengthen the roles that have been performed by related stakeholders.

Furthermore, through the National Consultation process, Indonesia had the chance to present itself to the international world. Ideal experiences from Indonesia will be more discussed in the international forum. Successful practitioners of legal empowerment of the poor will be able to share their stories to others from different country. Indonesia could even widen its network to support the legal empowerment program and continue partnering with grass-root level organizations, non-governmental organizations, and governments.

The success of the National Consultation left a big homework to do for all of us in Indonesia. We should implement the homework optimally, so that the discussions from the Consultation are given a greater value. This book, entitled “Legal Empowerment of the Poor: Lessons Learned from Indonesia” is a documentation of results from the National Consultation and the processes in preparing it. This book will hopefully be one innovative pillar of the legal empowerment movement, particularly in Indonesia, and also as a valuable lessons for other countries in the world.

Erna Witoelar        

Commissioner, Legal Empowerment


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