High-level Commission on the Legal Empowerment of the Poor

High-level Commission on the Legal Empowerment of the Poor


Norway, with the support of the other Nordic countries, has taken the initiative to establish an international commission to strengthen the user and property rights of the poor. The commission, which has a work schedule of approximately two and a half years, held its first working meeting on 20-21 January 2006. The UN Secretary-General has welcomed the initiative as an important contribution to meeting the UN Millennium Development Goals.


Background information

Billions of people, especially in developing countries, have no formal rights and are thus without legal protection. This is particularly serious in relation to the ownership of property and businesses, where formal ownership often forms a platform for further economic development. Formalisation is important; it will allow people in the informal sector in developing countries to gain rights that we take for granted and it will protect them against oppression and arbitrary treatment. Formalisation efforts have been underway for many years, but there has not been a holistic approach until now. If formalisation is to be a viable instrument, these efforts must be systematised and the lessons learned must be analysed to ensure that the next round of formalisation processes is more time- and cost-effective for the countries involved. When properly carried out, a formalisation process can be an important tool in the fight against poverty.


The composition and organisation of the commission

Today the commission is made up of 28 members, who include Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, the former High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, the founder and chair of BRAC Dr Fazle Hasan Abed, former President of Tanzania Benjamín Mkapa, and former Minister of International Development of Norway Hilde F. Johnson. The commission is chaired jointly by former Secretary of State of the US Madeleine Albright and the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto. An important criterion for the selection of members is that they have participated in major reform processes and are in a position to draw political attention to the issue. Norway has emphasised the importance of including representatives from the informal sector in the commission, the board of advisers and the working groups.

The work will be carried out by the commission itself, with its 28 members, and the commission’s secretariat hosted by UNDP, which consists of between six and eight persons. There is also a board of advisers, which is made up of representatives from multilateral organisations such as UN-HABITAT, the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank. Representatives of the private sector, civil society and organisations representing people in the informal sector also sit on the board of advisers. Most of the technical work will be carried out in the commission’s working groups. Each working group will be composed of technical experts in addition to one or two commissioners, and will be linked to relevant multilateral organisations. Each group will have a clearly defined focus area, for example the effects of formalisation processes on vulnerable groups such as indigenous peoples and women, and user rights versus property rights. Other important areas will be the effect of formalisation on the labour market and the access of the poor to credit.


Main tasks and considerations

Right from the start, Norway has emphasised that the commission should not focus solely on private property rights, but also take into consideration collective user and property rights. It is especially important that the commission and its working groups focus on the rights of vulnerable groups, particularly the rights of indigenous people and women. Emphasis will be placed on drawing up reform programmes that can be adapted to local conditions both at national and regional level. But success will depend on the efforts having extensive support at the global level, particularly among organisations in the South that represent people in the informal sector.

One of the commission’s tasks is to draw up an overview of and systematise the lessons learned and tools from previous and current formalisation processes. UNECE, which has been involved in formalisation processes in the former Soviet Union for 20 years, is an important player in these efforts. Another important task is to find ways of mobilising resources in the developing countries themselves that can promote more equitable development and distribution and prevent illegitimate and unfair economic structures from becoming entrenched. The commission will play an important part in bringing the economic legal rights of the poor to the top of the international development agenda.


Establishment and support

Norway took the lead in establishing the commission, with the support of the other Nordic countries, and the UK, Canada, Egypt, Tanzania and Guatemala, amongst others. UNECE and UNDP have also played an important part, both in developing the framework for the commission’s activities and in the role as interim secretariats. Other UN organisations have also been actively involved, and the UN Secretary-General has welcomed the initiative as an important contribution to reaching the UN Millennium Goal of halving poverty by 2015.

The commission was established on the basis of consultations with relevant partner countries and multilateral organisations. There have also been extensive rounds of consultations with civil society at national and international level. The members of the commission were selected by the steering group, which was chaired by Norway. Norway has undertaken to bear 30 per cent of the costs of the commission’s work for the duration of its work schedule. A significant part of these funds are to be used to support the participation of representatives of the South in the commission’s activities.


Civil society

Civil society has been an important player throughout the establishment process. From the very beginning, Norway has taken the view that civil society must be represented at all levels: in the commission, on the board of advisers and in the working groups. Just as important as giving civil society a formal place in the commission is ensuring that constructive input from civil society is listened to and reflected in both processes and results.