Q&A: Legal Empowerment Fund Director, Atieno Odhiambo


To meet the challenges the world faces today brought on by systemic injustices and the ongoing health crisis, we need to put people at the center of justice.

This guest blog, published on the occasion of the Global Week for Justice 2021, discusses the newly formed Legal Empowerment Fund, an initiative providing grants to frontline activists working to close the global justice gap, with a specific focus on systemic change. The FAQ below features Atieno Odhiambo, LEF’s new director, a front line activist herself. The Fund was launched in September of this year, with funders and allies including the CS Mott Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Namati, and the Pathfinders.

Our Justice for All guest blogs are written by justice leaders from around the world and across sectors, including grassroots, civil society, national and international. Their contributions highlight the ways in which people-centered justice creates meaningful change and helps us move from justice for the few to justice for all.

By the Fund for Global Human Rights

Atieno Odhiambo (Photo: Fund for Global Human Rights)

What is the Legal Empowerment Fund?

The Legal Empowerment Fund, or LEF, is a new program at the Fund for Global Human Rights focused on closing the global justice gap.

When people are able to know, use, and shape the law — a process known as legal empowerment — they can access justice. But right now, an estimated 5.1 billion are being failed by justice systems — that’s the global justice gap. Two-thirds of the global population have nowhere to turn when their rights are violated.

The LEF’s goal is to deliver frontline activists the resources they need to help people access the law and secure justice. Thanks to the support of a constellation of funders and allies — including the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Namati, and the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just, and Inclusive Societies — the LEF is aiming to move $100 million over 10 years to grassroots groups with big ideas for systemic change.

What does the LEF hope to accomplish?

The LEF will focus on systemic change rather than delivering direct legal aid. That means, for example, combining law and organizing to build power among people affected by injustice. We aim to help activists and communities connect the dots between work that addresses specific violations with efforts to fundamentally improve laws and systems.

The LEF will provide visionary local groups with renewable and long-term core funding, space for experimentation, and access to a global network of donors, advocates, and allies. Through its grant-making and strategic support, the LEF expects to:

  • Support stronger, better-resourced frontline civil society organizations.
  • Drive and share learning around effective legal empowerment strategies.
  • Build the collective power and agency of excluded communities, including women, Indigenous peoples, and children.
  • Enhance access to justice, catalyze positive changes in laws and policies, and push forward systemic change.

What does legal empowerment look like in action?

At its core, legal empowerment is about justice. And it has the potential to impact a huge range of issues, like housing, health, gender-based violence, land and environmental justice, and labor rights. With the law on their side, people are able seek peaceful solutions, protect the lands and resources they depend on, and hold their governments to account.

For example, across the world, Indigenous peoples’ lands have been stolen. Often, Indigenous communities have little access to recourse or justice. But in Honduras, the Afro-Indigenous Garifuna people took their case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights — and they won. Thanks to their precedent-setting victory, other Indigenous groups have a clear pathway to justice too.

What makes the LEF different from other justice reform initiatives?

Most justice reform initiatives are focused on strengthening the existing formal legal systems, so they employ a top-down approach. The LEF, on the other hand, seeks to scale grassroots-led solutions and catalyze transformational change from the bottom up. That’s the first thing that sets the LEF apart.

The second is our approach to grant-making itself.

Too often, grant-makers are obstacles rather than facilitators. To address the inherent imbalances in philanthropy, we’re taking a participatory approach to our grant-making — relocating the power in the grant-making process closer to the people it affects the most.

Our core principles are inclusion, participation, and accountability to those most affected by decision-making. That’s why our entire grants committee — as well as the majority of steering committee — will be made up of frontline legal empowerment activists.

Legal empowerment is community-based and grounded in specific experiences and geographies. It meets people where they are and frames problems and success from the perspective of communities themselves.

What brought you to the LEF?

I spent much of my earlier legal career providing direct aid to immigrant and at-risk communities, first in the United States and then in Kenya. Eventually, I realized that traditional legal aid — though necessary — was not sufficient. We weren’t getting to the root of the problem. Nor were we tapping the source of the solution.

As I looked for that source, I kept coming back to the communities I represented and the concept of legal empowerment. Legal empowerment is premised on the belief that grassroots legal actors in marginalized and vulnerable communities are best suited to drive lasting social justice. In short, legal empowerment recognizes that the source of the solution lies with communities and creates the space and resources for those solutions to come to light and thrive.

The LEF is designed to start at the source — with the affected communities themselves — and to scale their locally rooted solutions up through innovation and experimentation. Our participatory process and global reach mean that innovative groups who have otherwise been unable to receive funding will finally have access to the resources they need.

Directing the LEF is an opportunity to build on the work of my earlier career. I spent years helping people work within unfair, punitive justice systems. Now, I have a chance to help people change them.