‘Barefoot Lawyers’ Are Being Deployed to the Front Lines of Justice

Vivek Maru’s organization has trained hundreds of community paralegals in eight countries to support vulnerable communities.
(Photo: Skoll Foundation)
Apr 11, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Britni Danielle is a regular contributor to TakePart. She writes on a variety of subjects for Clutch, Ebony, Jet, and others.

This profile is part of TakePart’s series highlighting the six winners of the Skoll Foundation’s Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, announced ahead of the Skoll World Forum, which takes place April 13–15. The award distinguishes leaders who are committed to driving large-scale change; each of the awardees’ organizations receives a $1.25 million investment to scale its work and increase its impact. Jeff Skoll is the founder and chairman of the Skoll Foundation and the founder of Participant Media, the parent company of TakePart.

Vivek Maru’s impressive résumé—he is a graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law School and a former clerk for a U.S. Court of Appeals judge—could have easily landed him a cushy position at one of the nation’s top law firms. But cashing in was never his goal. After college, the Chicago native wasn’t sure being a lawyer was in his future at all. He opted instead to spend a year in Kutch, a remote district in western India, learning about the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi before enrolling at Yale.

“Lawyering seemed incompatible with the Gandhian perspective,” he wrote in his application for the Skoll Foundation’s 2016 Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, which named him one of its six recipients on Monday. “Gandhi’s approach aims for reconciliation and transformation; lawyers seemed to conceive of conflicts in narrow, adversarial terms. And while Gandhi valued the constructive process of building more democratic, more humane institutions, the law seemed reactive: Something bad happens, and then the lawyers would show up.”

Instead of dropping out of law school, Maru, now 41, graduated and found his way to Sierra Leone in 2003, just a year after the decade-long civil war ended. The move would change his life—and how justice is delivered in a number of vulnerable communities.

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“I didn’t have any blood connection to the place, but I met Abdul Tejan-Cole, who later became the anticorruption commissioner. The war had just ended, there was a huge need to rebuild, and there was also an opportunity to rebuild in a way that made more sense,” he tells TakePart. “There was kind of a consensus in the country that one of the big reasons people had gone to war in the first place was because of the arbitrariness in governance and administration of justice.”

Vivek Maru, founder of Namati. (Photo: Skoll Foundation)

According to Maru, several local organizations were interested in creating a better way to help Sierra Leoneans navigate the law, but reproducing a model of America’s legal-aid system wouldn’t have worked in the West African nation. “There were only 100 lawyers in the country at the time, and out of those, 90 lived in Freetown, the capital. So in the provinces, even a rich person couldn’t get a lawyer to represent them,” he says.

Maru decided to cofound Timap for Justice with legal colleague Simeon Koroma. Established in 2003, the organization provides free basic legal services in Sierra Leone by training local citizens to become paralegals. While the group’s work is ongoing, Maru replicated Timap’s innovative model for his next venture, Namati, which applies the same idea on a global scale.

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To date, Namati has trained hundreds of community paralegals in eight countries, including Uganda, the Philippines, Mozambique, and coastal India. So far, these “barefoot lawyers,” as they’re sometimes called, have been extremely effective, helping 5,000 stateless people in Kenya and Bangladesh attain legal identity documents; taking on nearly 3,000 land rights cases for farmers in Myanmar; and partnering with Mozambique’s Ministry of Health to repair breakdowns in the health care system there.

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“What we found is that if those front-line folks are well trained and well supported, they can get a lot done, even in a broken system,” Maru says.

Namati’s commitment to expanding legal access to local communities caught the attention of the Skoll Foundation, which awarded Maru’s organization a $1.25 million investment and will help connect him with a community of like-minded peers. For Maru, the award means spreading the word about Namati’s work.

“One of the things that is extremely powerful about Skoll is the emphasis on storytelling. The work we do can sometimes seem wonky, but it’s actually so bread-and-butter—everyday people facing life-and-death problems and finding ways to overcome them,” Maru says. “One of the things I’m excited to work with Skoll on is...to reach more people to widen the movement and deepen the public understanding of what this work looks like and why it’s important.”

Visit the Namati website to learn more about the organization and support its work.