A Grassroots Legal Empowerment Organization Attracts Global Climate Justice Dollars

A paralegal works with community members in Sierra Leone. Photo courtesy of Namati.

How do ordinary people overcome extraordinary imbalances of power?  

Vivek Maru, CEO of Namati, the social and environmental justice organization he founded, has found an answer in the law. “For all its flaws, for all the ways in which it’s been designed to repress, law is one of the few tools we have to constrain power,” he said.

At all levels, community justice is a solution he said is “largely missing” from the ways the causes and consequences of climate change are addressed. Those consequences also land disproportionately on marginalized communities, a reality that calls for a deepening of democracy. “Law itself is often dominated by elites and is difficult to access,” Maru said. “We want to democratize law: to take it out of books and courtrooms and combine it, instead, with the other key asset that communities have — their own people power.”

According to Namati, its global network of paralegals is combating environmental racism, and is putting the power of the law in the hands of more than 1.5 million people worldwide. Its approach has attracted the attention of plenty of big names in philanthropy, including the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Skoll Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation and others.

Timely this week, Namati also announced a commitment to action at the Clinton Foundation’s Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) to support marginalized communities facing environmental harm.

As at least some major players in environmental philanthropy — including established foundations and a growing array of billionaire newcomers — grow more attentive to the need to back priorities like climate and human rights intersectionally, and to support grassroots efforts, Namati is a good example of the kind of organization likely to garner more support in the years ahead.

Know laws, use laws, shape laws

Namati was officially founded in 2012, the year after its founder moved to Sierra Leone, a country then emerging from a brutal civil war. The idea of demystifying and democratizing law — the vision Maru said is at the “heart of what we’ve been up to from day one” — came from appeals from on-the-ground communities working to prevent another conflict.

The problem was also a matter of geography. Maru estimates that of the 100 lawyers then operating in the country, 90 were working in the capitol — excluding even the wealthy from securing representation. In response, Maru saw a solution in training local community organizers to know laws, use laws and shape laws to achieve climate justice.

To be clear, Namati’s community paralegals are not lawyers. Instead, they are backed up by professionals, who train them in basic law and arm them with skills like mediation and organizing.

Namati finds its grassroots justice advocates by seeking out people who are deeply rooted in the places where they live, have earned the community’s trust, and have proven organizing abilities. “We can train the law,” he said, pointing to the wide range of tasks community paralegals can tackle.

Together, the paralegals find ways to a make the law work for people, protect the basic rights of communities at large, and help citizens challenge broken health and pollution systems. Groups like farmers, for example, may need help recovering the land “stolen” from them by governments or corporations, like a mining company that caused downstream damage by unilaterally damming a river.

Other people have been “vilified and excluded” at the public policy level via practices like burdensome citizenship tests. In Kenya, decades-long discriminatory practices around ID cards have kept minority tribe members from accessing government services, getting a loan or going to college. The vetting process typically ran six months to two years, and involved arbitrary questioning. Instead of going family by family, Namati’s advocates worked at the systems level to end prejudiced practices.

Extending its reach

Since its initial work in Sierra Leone, Namati has widened its reach to six countries including Kenya, Mozambique and the United States. Work in India has been put on pause since the Indian government took action against Namati’s partner, the Centre for Policy Research, one of the country’s leading public policy think tanks. 

Globally, Namati also convenes a Grassroots Justice network consisting of roughly 12,000 members representing 3,000 groups across more than 170 countries. Its open forum provides a space for members to learn from one another, collaborate on common challenges and share successes.

“There are nothing but upsides for communities who’ve won rights to govern their land,” Maru said, and successes compound effectiveness. Maru said the hundreds of struggles Namati’s network has overcome in the past decade have resulted in “a lot of learning about the fundamental system of governance of land.”

Namati draws on that and the experiences of the community leaders who stood their ground to guide their thinking about what rules should look like for whole countries.

The SDGs as a key to unlock support

Namati has also been instrumental in elevating the ideas and ideals of justice for all at the macro level.

The original Millennium Development Goals of 2000 omitted law and justice. But the concerted advocacy of legal empowerment networks like Namati successfully made a case that justice is at the heart of all development. When the United Nations adopted a new set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, the 16th specifically included access to justice for all. 

That’s no small win in terms of garnering philanthropic support. Candid estimated that philanthropic giving aimed at the SDGs has already totaled $217 billion.

Big-name funders

Namati is drawing increased attention from philanthropy and social justice organizations that aim to empower grassroots actors working in the Global South, embrace less conventional approaches, and bridge gaps between long-siloed issue areas like climate, conservation and human rights — issues that cannot be addressed in isolation.

In 2022, it was a recipient of a Kellogg Foundation and Lever for Change Racial Equity 2030 grant challenge that sought “bold solutions,” sharing $80 million with the other four finalists. In 2016, it was a Skoll Awardee for Social Entrepreneurship. And Vivek Maru was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014.

Philanthropic donors include the Hewlett Foundation, the Christensen Fund, which supports the rights of Indigenous people globally, and the Climate Justice Resilience Fund, which pools funds from private philanthropists and foundations to advance climate justice. 

A new commitment

Namati can point to a number of concrete wins, like new laws in Sierra Leone that protect communities land rights and the environment. Yet the gap between need and funding remains wide.

The organization expects to continue to evolve in the coming years, while remaining committed to fundamental transformative change in the countries where it works. Training community paralegals remains paramount: Namati hopes to launch a high-quality learning institute and increase its overall number of community paralegals to 25,000. 

Namati made a commitment to action at the Clinton Global Initiative that’s running concurrent with the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) again this year, supporting marginalized communities facing environmental harm in places like Kenya, Sierra Leone and the U.S. Titled “Growing a Global Movement for Justice,” it will use legal means and the power of collective action to help communities determine their own land use, and lead the transition to sustainable economies.

The man who literally wrote the book on the community paralegals feels the result of their work will be fairer outcomes and fundamentally better laws and systems. “Together,” Maru said, “we can forge a pathway to climate justice by combining the power of law with the power of people.”