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Building Laws That Work for the Poor

What is the link between the rule of law and poverty? A new report finds that billions of people "around the world are robbed of the chance to better their lives and climb out of poverty because they are excluded from the rule of law."

According to the report, produced by the Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor, a commission hosted by UNDP, "more than seven in ten children in the world's least developed countries do not have birth certificates or other registration documents," and in India, there are only 11 judges for every million people.

But while the report focused on countries around the world, WRI convened an event earlier this week with influential leaders from government and civil society to put the spotlight squarely on the United States.

"I do think, and I will stand up for this, that U.S. law and U.S. democracy is better than anything else," said Madeleine Albright, former United States secretary of state and co-chair of the Commission. "But clearly there are issues, and New Orleans is the best example of it."

Dr. Beverly Wright, a New Orleans resident and founder and executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University, said this about the poor response to Katrina: "We were absolutely looking at a situation where a government as rich and as powerful and as knowledgeable as our government is, was absolutely unable to protect vulnerable populations." Wright continued: "I still ask myself, ‘why?'"

Wright traces her family in New Orleans back many generations, and before the storm, she lived in a home she had inherited. She talked about what happened to her and thousands of others who had no voice in what happened to their property after the storm:

"I looked up on a map and I saw a green space, and I looked at where it was, I said, ‘Darn that's where I lived.' And my question was, ‘So who made this decision? Where was I?' Somebody decided, ‘We're going to make this footprint smaller, and your house is gone.' Well, that happened to a whole lot of us."

Her moving story shows that even in the United States, many people are excluded from the critical decisions that affect their environment. To exercise their right to participate in decision-making, citizens need access to the information that drives those decisions and the chance to voice their opinions and to influence choices.

"Despite robust social safety nets and legal protections available to Americans, millions of poor people in America continue to confront both formal and informal barriers to participation in civic and economic life," said Jonathan Lash, president of WRI. "These barriers have denied them access to secure property rights, to the judicial system and to sustainable livelihoods and resilient communities."

WRI contributed to the Commission report, which drew specifically on the work of The Access Initiative, a project of WRI and the world's largest network of civil society organizations working to ensure that people have the right and the ability to influence decisions about the natural resources that sustain their communities.

And WRI's new book, Voice and Choice: Opening the Door to Environmental Democracy, looks at the progress governments have made in providing access to environmental decision-making—and with the hope of accelerating this progress, the book identifies hurdles and suggests how to overcome them.

At the WRI event, Dr. Naresh Singh, executive director of the Commission, focused on the key message of the report: legal empowerment. Singh noted that some nations may have an established rule of law, yet its citizens are not empowered to take action. Singh talked about the four pillars which must be central to national and international efforts aimed at the legal empowerment of the poor: access to justice and rule of law, property rights, labor rights and business rights.

The panel talked about how billions of people worldwide have no voice in the decisions that affect their environment. The United States is no exception. The consequences of environmental degradation and poor planning are harshest on poor communities.

"Obviously, [the report] has an environmental aspect to it because we know that poor people suffer the most, I think, in terms of land that has been deforested or lack of water. So there is, I think, a direct connection between empowering the poor, the legal empowerment of the poor and [WRI's] agenda," said Albright.

"We believe the report contains lessons for a new administration committed to helping the poor and disempowered in this country," Jacob Werksman, director of the Institutions and Governance Program at WRI, said about the Commission report. "Too often we assume the rule of law functions equally for everyone. As a result, ill-crafted decisions and the lack of enforcement of environmental standards unfairly harm poor communities."

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