Inspired by Anna Hazare’s hunger strike, thousands of people recently gathered at Ramlila Grounds in New Delhi to protest governmental corruption. Protesters from here and around the country pressed for specific political change — a new institution to combat corruption. In principle, they won. Parliament passed a resolution accepting their demands and is now drafting a new “Lokpal Bill” accordingly.

The demonstrations were also motivated by a larger aspiration, one that is more difficult to achieve: that the day-to-day workings of government become more accountable, more tied to the citizens whom government is meant to serve.

Thus two of the great international movements since World War II have arrived: the movement for human rights and for economic development.

The human rights movement has led nearly all countries to endorse human rights norms, at least in name. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, therefore, use documentation and public advocacy to shame governments for egregious violations. But shaming alone cannot address every breach of basic rights, such as when a juvenile is wrongfully detained or when a factory poisons a river. There must be a consistent system by which citizens can protect their rights in daily life.

In the parallel movement for economic development, governments and agencies have sought to alleviate poverty by fostering growth and improving essential services like health care and education. But it is increasingly apparent that effective development depends on citizens’ ability to hold public institutions accountable.

Governments and donors can build clinics and schools, for example, but the investments are meaningless if the drugs and books aren’t delivered, or if nurses and teachers don’t show up to work.

Solutions to these problems do not lie in elections or representative democracy alone. They require a substantial, ongoing relationship between citizens and the state. You might call it a matter of “legal empowerment”: of ensuring that laws and policies reside not only in books or courtrooms, but also on the street and in the home, within the grasp of every person.

It is realizing that vision requires investment, innovation and learning across countries.

The hopeful spirit at Ramlila Grounds in August was reminiscent of Barack Obama’s campaign for the American presidency in 2008. But even fervent demonstrators acknowledged that the new Lokpal they demanded — a national ombudsman office — would face some of the same implementation challenges that have dogged India’s existing institutions for accountability.

While reforms like those in Lokpal are aimed at improving the state’s capacity to provide redress, there is an equal need to bolster citizens’ capacity to seek redress. Conventional legal aid is not always workable; it’s necessary to experiment with more flexible, context-responsive models.

Community paralegals, for example, can solve many problems using mediation, advocacy and education, especially if they’re backed by a smaller corps of public interest lawyers.

The international community should address these challenges by establishing a global fund for legal empowerment. Legal empowerment is a public good: It renders governments more accountable and makes development more equitable.

Unlike the situation with public health, for example, states have a natural disincentive to support legal empowerment, because it constrains state power — which is all the more reason for a multilateral financing mechanism.

Social movements in India, the Middle East, the United States and elsewhere are demanding that institutions promote greater citizen participation and oversight. The challenge of responding to those movements is not exclusively that of a few governments. It belongs to all of us.

Vivek Maru is CEO of Namati, a new international organization dedicated to legal empowerment, supported by the British and Australian governments, the Open Society Institute and the United Nations Development Program. © 2011 Project Syndicate

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