The following is a conversation between Vivek Maru, Founder and CEO of Namati, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: Every year, billions upon billions of dollars are spent by the international development community to improve the lives of people across the world. But a question to ask about this is: How effective can those dollars really be if 4 billion people, many of those same people who are being helped, do not have basic access to justice? An organization that is addressing this epidemic of injustice head-on is Namati. And it’s a pleasure to have with us their founder and chief executive officer, Vivek Maru. Good evening Vivek, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Vivek: Thank you so much, Denver. Great to be here.
We deploy community legal workers – sometimes people call them barefoot lawyers – to help people exercise basic rights. Some of the most vulnerable people in the world– we help them to take on the injustices they face.
Denver: For those who may not be familiar with Namati, what are the mission and goals of the organization?
Vivek: We deploy community legal workers– sometimes people call them barefoot lawyers– to help people exercise basic rights. Some of the most vulnerable people in the world– we help them to take on the injustices they face.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Namati is Sanskrit for bending that curve towards justice.
Denver: Namati is a Sanskrit word. What does it mean?
Vivek: It means to bend something into a curve. We had in mind that phrase that Martin Luther King would often say, which is that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” So, Namati is Sanskrit for bending that curve towards justice.
Denver: As we mentioned, 4 billion people in the world live without basic access to justice. For the most part, Vivek, are there simply no laws on the books to protect these people? Or is it a case where the laws are just not being enforced?
Vivek: That’s a good question. It is a mix of those two. There are almost everywhere, even in really difficult places; I just got back from Myanmar last month, for example, which has been a dictatorship for 60 years, and it’s still in transition. Even in a very tough, still undemocratic place like Myanmar, there are laws on the books that would afford people some protection. So, even in places with weak laws, there is almost always something useful, something to start with. But that is not to say, on the other hand, that anywhere has a perfect set of laws.
To the contrary, many laws are designed to repress people. What we found is that there is real power in giving ordinary people the ability to understand and use the law as it is, to invoke it, to use it to try to get traction on a problem that they face, and that that can be an entry point to ultimately taking part and shaping the law, improving it.
I feel like law is the sacred thing. It is supposed to be the language we use to translate our dreams about justice into living institutions that hold us together. It’s supposed to be the thing that makes the difference between a society that’s ruled by the most powerful, and one that honors the dignity of everyone.
Denver: How do you define a law?
Vivek: I feel like law is the sacred thing. It is supposed to be the language we use to translate our dreams about justice into living institutions that hold us together. It’s supposed to be the thing that makes the difference between a society that’s ruled by the most powerful, and one that honors the dignity of everyone.
Denver: But it’s become very abstract and very cloaked in secrecy. I think that’s part of the reason why lawyers – and that is a noble profession – kind of turns sour, the connotation around that word.
Vivek: I think you’re right. I think our profession has taken a hit reputation-wise, and I think we deserve it. I think the law has become too complex, mystified in a way. It’s sort of sleeping in courts and books. Living here in the United States, I think many recognize more than ever how important it actually is… how important those laws are, that they belong to all of us. So, when we talk about our philosophy, we say legal empowerment– by which we mean we’re trying to demystify law– take away that complexity and make it simple, and make it something that ordinary people can make sense of.
Denver: You have a long history of social justice. Much of it is as a result of your grandfather, who is part of the Gandhi movement. What were some of those early lessons for you?
Vivek: My mom’s dad… I’m from an immigrant family. My parents came to the United States from India, and in general, I think like many immigrant families, mine was service-oriented and very community-oriented but not too political. I feel like there’s a bit of a tradition of keeping your heads down when you are immigrants. But my mom’s dad, back in India, he did not keep his head down. He was a really dedicated activist and public servant. One of the things that he taught me was to think about the long game. He was involved in public life over many decades, and he ran for office several times. He kept on losing; he kept on running. He spent time in prison during the independence movement. He fell down so many times, but he kept getting back up.
Denver: You went to Yale Law School but were a bit disenchanted, as your grandmother told you you would be, and almost dropped out in your first year. What was missing? What was off?
Vivek: I was struck during that first year in law school. I did feel like these dreams I had had about the law that was supposed to protect everyone was so distant from the reality that we live in. And the version of law that we were being taught, it seemed kind of narrow and reactionary, in contrast to the way in which I felt law might be in society.
These community paralegals are the equivalent for law. They can bring law close to the people and help people find practical solutions which oftentimes don’t involve the courts. They involve the administrative institutions. They involve creative negotiation. During those years, living in Sierra Leone and working with communities and paralegals, I started to see a version of the law that I really felt hopeful about.
Denver: After law school, you worked a little bit in the circuit court. Then you moved to Sierra Leone at the end of the Eleven Years War. And the template of what was to become Namati was created. Tell us about that experience.
Vivek: Yeah, that’s right, Denver. When I moved to Sierra Leone in 2003, which was right after the end of a brutal, eleven-year civil war, people in Sierra Leone recognized: there was kind of a consensus across the society that among the root causes of that war, among the basic reasons why people had gone to the bush and picked up guns, was because of maladministration of justice, and the kind of arbitrariness in governance.
So there was an interest in doing something going forward. How are we going to keep that from happening again? Can we find a way to offer people some basic legal support when they face injustice in their daily lives, so that we don’t get to that level of social breakdown and alienation that would force us to return to conflict? On the other hand, at that time, were 100 lawyers total in the country of about 6 million people. Out of that 100, more than 90 were in Freetown, in the capital. Plus, there’s a dual legal system, where you have a formal system based on British law which had been the colonial power, and then you have a customary system based on African tradition. A lot of the people turned to the customary institutions, but the lawyers only practice in the formal ones. So, for those reasons, a lawyer-based model of providing legal aid really would have been a nonstarter.
Instead, what we did – and we took inspiration from South Africa – is that we deployed these community legal workers who can be a bridge, who can straddle that formal system and the customary one.
Denver: Like community health workers.
Vivek: Exactly. In healthcare, we have long realized, you don’t just have doctors for healthcare. You have many layers. You have nurses and midwives. As you said, community health workers. These community paralegals are the equivalent for law. They can bring law close to the people and help people find practical solutions which oftentimes don’t involve the courts. They involve the administrative institutions. They involve creative negotiation. During those years, living in Sierra Leone and working with communities and paralegals, I started to see a version of the law that I really felt hopeful about.
Denver: Tell us a little bit about these paralegals. How are they trained? How are they paid? You alluded they work through these informal channels. Tell us how they work and get things done.
Vivek: Absolutely. We are looking for people who are rooted in the communities that they serve, and they have earned the trust of people they serve. They’ve demonstrated some kind of commitment to the common good, and they have creative problem-solving ability, and that they can have some basic reading and writing skills.
We train them in substantive laws and how government works. Then what they do, the first step, is often legal education. Just letting people know, I think I mentioned, I came from Myanmar last month; one of the first things that community paralegals in Myanmar do is help people to understand what the laws related to land actually say, since there has been so much land grabbing in that society. There’s been a lot of theft around land during the dictatorship. That’s one of the first things they’ll do is in a community meeting, or at a place where people are already gathering or actually on the radio, the community paralegals will help people to understand law, break it down into simple terms.
Denver: Sounds like they work “with the people,” as opposed to “for the people.”
Vivek: Yes. We often say that: A traditional lawyer-client relationship is, “I’ll solve it for you.” If you go to a lawyer’s office in Freetown, for example, in the capital of Sierra Leone, and you come in with a problem, the lawyer will say something like this to you in Sierra Leone in Creole, “creole speak”: “I’ve heard you. Put some money on the table. I’m gonna handle it for you. I’ve got you.” Paralegals have a different message. Not”I’m gonna handle it for you,” but “We’re gonna solve it together.”
Denver: That’s really nice. You’ve taken on some pretty powerful interests. Can this be dangerous work?
Vivek: It can be, Denver, Yeah. The truth is that it’s a brutal world in a lot of places. We are taking on steep imbalances of power. Paralegals in communities are courageously standing up to those. But yes, there is a risk of retaliation, and we have had paralegals who’ve had death threats. There are paralegals in our wider network. Namati, in addition to deploying paralegals ourselves in six countries, we convene a global network with grassroots troops from all over the world. There are paralegals that have been killed in our wider network for the work that they do. I can’t deny it. There is some risk in the work that these people are doing.
Denver: Those six countries… what countries are they that you’re operating in?
Vivek: Sierra Leone, which is where I’m headed next week, and where we worked for a long time. Also in Africa – Kenya and Mozambique, and then a couple of places in South Asia – Myanmar, I mentioned, and India, which is where my family is from. Our most recent one, which maybe is backwards in a way, but we’re just beginning to try to work with community paralegals here in the United States – in Maryland, in DC, which is near where I live.
Denver: What areas are you focusing on?
Vivek: In our network, there are people who work on all kinds of things. That’s a thing about law. You sort of made reference at the beginning. It cuts across just about everything you could care about. Whether it’s environmental protection, or the right to health or education or criminal justice. So much of what we care about, the law is relevant for. If the law is breaking down, then it’ll get in the way of well-being. In our network, we have people who run the gamut from labor rights to violence against women, to prisoner’s rights.
In the work that Namati is doing directly, we have tried to go deep on four issues, and those are: citizenship rights – people who can’t access papers because they face discrimination when they try to get an identity card, that’s one. Another one is the right to health – so people who live in places where there are decent healthcare policies, but there’s oftentimes a breakdown in delivery– like no running water in the local health clinic, or the nurse is not showing up to work. Paralegals help people to understand what health policy says and to get solutions to grievances. The other couple of areas where we work are community land rights and environmental justice– or environmental enforcement.
Denver: Let’s take community land rights, if we can. A lot can happen when a person is cajoled to put their thumbprint on a piece of paper which leases their prized possession, their land, away for a long, long time. Tell us about this practice, the consequences of it, and what your organization is doing to make it right.
Vivek: Yes, there are many, many people around the world. There was one estimate that it’s about a billion people around the world who live on land that they think of as their own. They have occupied if for generations. They depend on it for their livelihood, whether it’s farming or grazing or fishing or some combination of those. Yet, they don’t have formal legal rights to it. They don’t have a piece of paper. They don’t have a map, and when you don’t have those things, you are vulnerable because right now, there is a huge amount of demand for exactly that land for mining, for agribusiness.
So, there are communities around the world that because of those insecure legal rights are vulnerable to having their land taken from them, or as you said, getting hoodwinked or cajoled into endorsing. You mentioned putting the thumbprints because they can’t read and write, putting their thumbprints on lease agreements– sometimes 50 years, 99 –year lease agreements in return for very little– like $2 an acre per year for 50 years. That is the thing that they depend upon the most.
What community paralegals can do about that is they can educate people up front about opportunities. In many places, there are actually is a law in the books that allows communities to document their lands and to secure their legal rights and to set up governance arrangements over those lands, so that they do have the power to make decisions about them. So paralegals can help communities go through that process to map their lands, document their boundaries, set up governance arrangements, which is a hugely empowering thing. If you sit down with a community that now has a title and a map to the land that they’ve had for a long time, that itself is empowering. If an investor does come along, paralegals can help communities to negotiate with that investor in an empowered way and also to take part in the public processes that set the terms on that investment.
Denver: That’s cool. Also in some of these lease agreements, there is an option to renegotiate. So when that comes up, they say: Let’s get a better deal here, or no deal at all.
Denver: Closely connected to that would be environmental laws. And they are ignored and disregarded, and certainly not enforced. You do so much work around that. Give us a story.
Vivek: Absolutely. My family, as I said, is from India. India’s got a strong environmental regulatory framework on paper, but a huge enforcement gap. In many places, companies are just ignoring the commitments that they are under. So, what we have seen is that paralegals in many places are able to help the communities who are living in the shadow of those industrial facilities to, again, understand what rules say, and then to pursue enforcement. Not to go to court, but to go to administrative institutions.
We’ve got many stories. There is an estuary in South India, a place called Uttarakhand, which is like a district in the State of Karnataka. There are people who harvest clams for a living. They are dependent on that estuary for harvesting clams. Paralegals help them do a couple of things. One is, the folks who do the clam harvesting had historically been excluded from forming a union, and they had been excluded from some basic benefits that, for example, fisher people receive. Like if a fisherman dies at sea, the Indian government has an insurance scheme that the family receives something. Someone was diving for clams and died, but his wife couldn’t receive anything because they weren’t recognized as a traditional livelihood– and part of that was because their caste was different from the caste of people who typically practice fishing. So, paralegals help them for the first time to register as a union and to get recognition for this livelihood, which is a form of: you’re sort of invisible. You’re not recognized under the law, and you go from there to actually having recognition, having formal rights.
The other thing that paralegals have been doing is that: there is a proposal to build a huge port right there on that estuary which would destroy the natural resources that these people depend on, and so paralegals have been helping communities to understand what that proposal is, and to take part in these public conversations about whether that should happen. And if so, on what terms?
…our mantra is: ”Know law. Use law. Shape law.” We want everybody to be able to do all three of those things.
Denver: Good stuff. Can paralegals get enough data from all the cases that they’re collectively working on, and then make a case to the government that the system needs to be changed?
Vivek: Absolutely, Denver. I was saying that our mantra is: “Know law. Use law. Shape law.” We want everybody to be able to do all three of those things. You put your finger on it. If you track data on the cases that paralegals’ handle, all these attempts to try to get justice out of the system as it is now, that gives you, when you put it together, a detailed portrait of how that system is working in practice. And people can use that information to argue for improvements to laws and policies.
For example, in India, the paralegals observed over time the way a certain set of policies around the handling of coal were really helpful to communities, that they could use those policies, for example, around how… when coal is handled, how fugitive dust needs to be prevented. They were able to use those policies to get concrete solutions, but they found that there were no similar guidelines for other minerals. So, they have proposed, and the government in Gujurat State has in principle accepted this as a new set of guidelines addressing other kinds of minerals.
Suddenly, you go from helping hundreds or thousands of people to being able to get a systemic change that affects the lives of millions of people. And we have seen that over and over in many different countries, how that knowledge and that experience of trying to use the law, when you put it together can be a really powerful basis from which to propose and advocate for improvements to law.
Denver: Absolutely. You touched on this a little while ago, but I think a lot of people might be surprised that you’re operating here in the United States, as you said, in the Washington metro area, and much of that work has been around the housing crisis. What kind of things are you doing?
Vivek: We’re just getting started. I think you might be referring on housing to this really powerful example… which actually Namati wasn’t involved in… of how community paralegals can be effective here, right here in New York City. There is this paralegal program, which a judge in New York endorsed, where volunteer or very low stipend… basically volunteers… help people in housing court to understand housing law and advocate for themselves.
Researchers talked to 150 people who had help from these paralegals. Normally in New York, one in nine of the tenants who gets brought to housing court gets evicted. But when researches talked to 150 people who had help from paralegals, they found no evictions at all. Not one. So, it shows us how a little bit of legal empowerment can go a long way. The work that we are scoping down in DC in Maryland is related to environmental justice because actually the conditions I was describing in India, they aren’t that…
Denver: Foreign to here.
Vivek: We, here as well, have a situation where we have a rigorous and sophisticated environmental regulatory regime. We do have a lot of gaps in that regime and a lot of noncompliance. The Patuxent River, for example, which flows through Maryland and flows through a lot of communities of color and a lot of poor people’s communities, there are over a hundred facilities on that river that are in noncompliance openly. So, we are looking at the possibility of working with local community members, again, to play this role of legal empowerment to make sure that communities themselves understand what the rules say and are able to use those rules to protect themselves, to protect their environment, their health, and their livelihoods.
There are many people coming together to try to convince governments around the world that we need to back those words, that commitment to access to justice for all, we need to back that with action.
Denver: As I recall, Vivek, the Millennial Goals, which were from 2000 through 2015, had no mention of fairness or corruption or justice. So, it is encouraging to see that Sustainable Development Goals, which are going up until 2030, do include justice and legal empowerment in goal number 16. I want to extend my congratulations to you for that. But my question is: What has that meant to the work you’re doing, if anything?
Vivek: That’s a great question, Denver. Indeed, those Millennium Development Goals from 2000 to 2015, they were influential on development policy, both at the domestic level, as well as internationally. So, it was a huge oversight that they had left out, as you said, justice, law, fairness, accountability. None of those things were mentioned, though the goals themselves were very laudable. These things like: cut malnutrition in half. They just weren’t complete. So, our community argued, when the debate was happening around what the next development framework should look like– which are called the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals– that justice and legal empowerment should really have a central place.
And indeed, as you mentioned, we squeaked by. It wasn’t clear whether we were going to make it, but the 16th out of 17 goals commits to access to justice for all, which is a really powerful recognition in a way that we haven’t had before of how important justice is to development. People can’t improve their lives if they cannot exercise their rights. In terms of practically, what value has that normative recognition had – I think the verdict is still out. We are trying to make good on that promise now. And I was at an event last night with Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, and a guy named Walter Flores, who is a great legal empowerment advocate from Guatemala. There are many people coming together to try to convince governments around the world that we need to back those words, that commitment to access to justice for all, we need to back that with action.
Denver: I did note that when it was announced, along with the other goals, it was one that did not have any funding that accompanied it. Where many of the others had these philanthropists stepping up with big dollars. So, let me ask you about funding. How do you get this money to operate and promote your work?
Vivek: Great question. It’s true. The other goals when they were announced, there were major commitments. A billion dollars for nutrition, $ 25 billion in public/private financing for healthcare for women and girls, which is awesome. Those things deserve that support. Yet for access to justice, we managed to get the words on paper, but nobody pledged a penny. I think it is a situation where we have on the one hand, the normative recognition. I think now, more than ever, of how important it is that the law works for everyone, and yet very, very little resources goes into it. In fact, there was a study that just came out that showed that if anything – funding for justice has declined by 40% over the last four years. So, the groups in our network, and Namati ourselves, we scrape it together with a bit of philanthropic support that we can find. Sometimes there is some support from governments. And then the communities themselves provide a lot of elbow grease and the work to make things happen.
Denver: As a founder and CEO of Namati, you’ve had a larger role than anyone in shaping the corporate culture and the workplace environment. Is there any one or two things that you’ve done that have worked really well that you’d like to share with others?
Vivek: It’s a great question. We have a team that is spread out across six countries, plus a couple– because we have a teammate from the Philippines; we’ve got a couple who are working remotely. So, one of the challenges is: How do you foster and weave a really deep, unified culture across those places, which has been such a priority for us. I think part of this is having a common set of values that everyone knows and that we live and breathe. Some of those: empowerment itself, this idea that we don’t want to be solving problems for poor people. We want to equip people to solve them themselves. We try to take that seriously internally as well. That is one principle that cuts across.
Another one is movement generosity that we know, that ultimately, we are trying to build something that is much bigger than any one organization. So, that is a cultural value that we try to live by. Another one is creative problem solving, which is what paralegals do every single day. Paralegals live by this ethic of: even when the odds are against them, even when the system seems bureaucratic and opaque, to be creative about how you find a way forward and focus on a solution. Again, that ethic that paralegals embody, we try to live by that throughout the organization, whether you’re working on the finance team, or whether you are driving the jeep across really tough roads in rural Sierra Leone. Values like those that we talk about, that we live and breathe, those are some of the things that tie us together.
Denver: Let me close with this, Vivek. Speak about hope, as opposed to despair. We all know the importance of hope in a person’s life. But we don’t frequently associate it with the law. Tell us how you’ve seen the law used in a way that has given a person and a community… hope.
Vivek: I do think that the law can and should be almost a vehicle for living out our hope because the law is so crucial for democracy itself. I was in Kenya before I was in Myanmar earlier this summer. There is a guy there named Mahkmuhdradeed (sp?). He said it’s okay to say his name. In 1985, he got pickpocketed. Someone stole his wallet, and his ID card was in his wallet. For normal – he’s from Kenya. He’s born and raised in Nairobi – for normal Kenyans, for your average Kenyan, that is not a big deal. It takes you a couple of weeks; you get a new ID card.
In his case, because he is from one of several tribes that faces discrimination when trying to get an ID card… Altogether, there are 5 million people in Kenya with this situation, where they face almost like a Jim Crow process. It’s really hard for them to get ID cards. He got bounced around from agency to agency, from the police to the security officials and back. He got asked for all kinds of things he didn’t have. He ended up giving up, and he had to stop working. He had been a truck driver. He went that way for 29 years without an ID card, unable to work. Then a community paralegal from his community helped him to understand how that system for ID administration worked. Helped him gather the documents he needed to make a case for himself, and he was finally able to get an ID again. He drives a truck again. He has a life again. He said, “I have my life back now.” That’s just one of many, many examples that I’ve seen over time of how: if you take the law seriously, and if you put the power of law in people’s hands, people can go from despair to hope.
Whether you have $10, $100, or a million dollars, consider putting some of that into grassroots legal empowerment. It is the right thing to do. It matters for its own sake, and it also is essential for just about everything else we care about, whether it’s environmental protection or healthcare or well-being, or fighting poverty; this question of law and justice cuts across all of those.
Denver: What a sweet story to end on. Vivek Maru, the founder and CEO of Namati, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Is there anything people can do, can act upon, to be part of this movement of providing access to justice for all?
Vivek: Great question, Denver. I would say three things. I would say, number one is, invest. Whether you have $10, $100, or a million dollars, consider putting some of that into grassroots legal empowerment. It is the right thing to do. It matters for its own sake, and it also is essential for just about everything else we care about, whether it’s environmental protection or healthcare or well-being, or fighting poverty; this question of law and justice cuts across all of those. Invest is one.
Second is, wherever you are, to argue with your public officials, with your representatives, that this question of basic legal support, it ought to be a public priority. It ought to be one of the things that a society owes its people. Right now, that is not the case in rich countries or poor countries. Legal aid is totally underfunded across the board.
A third thing I would say is, consider being a community paralegal in your own life. You don’t have to have a special training. Think about, is there a problem or an injustice near where you live? Is the river that flows through the city that you live in being poisoned? Are there people who are working without proper safety gear near where you live? Get to know the people most affected. Figure out what the rules say… with them. Try to figure out what the rules say; see if you can use those rules to get a solution. And if you can’t, work on trying to shape those rules, because if we all start knowing, using, and shaping the law, I think we will be together building that deeper version of democracy that is so essential.
Denver: We’re all paralegals. Thanks, Vivek. It was a real delight to have you on the show.
Vivek: Thank you Denver. Thanks so much for having me.
Denver: I’ll be back with more right after this.
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