Law: A hidden dimension of social entrepreneurship


The lawyer changemaker: In 2007, I co-founded Natural Justice: lawyers for communities and the environment. The organisation now provides legal support to Indigenous peoples and local communities in southern, east and west Africa on issues at the nexus of human rights and the environment. For this work - using law for social and environmental justice - I was asked to become an Ashoka Fellow: a lawyer changemaker.


The systems changemaker: When I met Cynthia Ong in 2010, she was running LEAP Spiral, an NGO that helps talented individuals and groups to scale their work as well as mobilise movements against projects that would have lasting, negative social and environmental impacts. For many people this would be a life’s work. For Cynthia it was a promising start. 


Founding question: In 2012, Cynthia asked a profound question. Where will the Malaysian state of Sabah be in fifty years if it continues along its current development trajectory? 


Forever Sabah: Cynthia facilitated an inclusive process for two years that generated a new, more ambitious initiative: Forever Sabah. Forever Sabah aims to engage the state’s ecological, economic, and social systems as an integrated whole, supporting Sabah’s transition to a diversified, equitable and circular economy. 


Ashoka Fellow: Today, after five years of work, the ‘first wave’ of projects included work on a wide range of issues, including those in the following image. For her leadership, Cynthia was invited to become an Ashoka Fellow, Malaysia’s first: a systems change changemaker.  


Law and change: Working closely with Cynthia I was struck by a related set of thoughts: 

·      None of Forever Sabah’s areas of work are about law, per se. But laws, policies and institutional structures and relationships are central to all of them. 

·      While Cynthia would not describe herself as a lawyer or her work as ‘lawyering’, every one of Forever Sabah’s teams engage with either international, national, state-level and/or customary laws. 

·      To help transition Sabah’s economy to one that embodies increasing levels of economic, social and environmental justice, changes in the way we conceptualise, develop and implement laws will be required.  

This realisation led me to wonder how many other Ashoka fellows’ work embodied similar linkages between their mission, activities and the law. 


A closer look at law and development: Many countries’ laws and institutional arrangements are based on extractive approaches to labour and natural resources, oftentimes a legacy of colonial intervention. Seen in mechanistic terms, economies were structured through the imposition of laws and institutions to maximise financial profits for capitalistic elites while externalising costs. Natural, social, and cultural capital was exploited to generate income – and the system was set up and held in place by an ever-more complex and self-referential system of laws and institutions (‘the establishment’). As the legal geographer Nick Blomley so simply points out, “the law is not innocent”. Liz Laden Wiley, a land lawyer, has a related thought.


Thai changemakers: Ashoka Thailand invited me to speak about this issue at the Social Equity Impact Forum 2019. To test the ideas, we used the Ashoka Thailand network of 99 fellows** to explore the issues. The analysis generated a range of interesting findings. 

1. Legal representation: We found just 6 fellows in Thailand who are using law in the way most associated with the profession: representing their clients in court and engaging in litigation. 


For example, one fellow is using strategic litigation to address illegal labour practices and trafficking of women and children. 


2. Law and institutional reform: Our research found 39 fellows engaging in the law more broadly, using law, policy reform and methods of legal empowerment as part of their approach to addressing social and environmental issues. 


For example, one fellow is working on developing participatory wetland protection in Thailand through collecting local community signatures to support a draft law on wetland protection. 


3. Law is relevant: Another 14 fellows were found not engaging with law but working on issues that had a legal dimension. 


Many fellows in this category were working with vulnerable communities, focusing on issues such as child protection, sex workers’ and women’s rights, youth gangs and poverty alleviation. The fact that this group of fellows is not engaging with the law is not being criticised, but the analysis highlights the potential to scale impact by engaging with law. 


4. Law is less relevant: Lastly, 28 fellows were found to be working on relatively non-legal issues. Generally, this includes work on very local rather than systemic issues. 

For example, one fellow is supporting the development of botanical pesticide fertilizer products and creating village based career opportunities for youth.  


Core finding: Amalgamating the results, we found that 69% of Ashoka fellows, a clear majority, are engaging with the law either explicitly or implicitly, or working on issues where engaging the law could help scale the fellows’ impact. The results underscore that law, policy and institutional arrangements are a dimension of many of the social issues on which fellows focus, and suggest that the law is likely also part of the ‘solution’.  


Messages to students: The results are good news for young people interested in law and social change. One can be a changemaker using the law in courtrooms, but there are even more opportunities for a broader application of legal expertise. It’s also interesting for people who decide not to become lawyers. The research shows you do not need to be a qualified lawyer to have a career working at the nexus of law and social-environmental justice.  

Message to law schools: The overriding message is that if law schools want to give flight to changemakers they must broaden their curricula to foster development of more relevant knowledge and skills. Law schools need to be reimagined in the context of social entrepreneurship, particularly from thinking of lawyers as providing technical support to social entrepreneurs to equipping them to be fully-fledged changemakers.  


Changemakers: Changemakers who are not yet collaborating with people with legal expertise may find that doing so helps them scale their work. This is particularly relevant for changemakers who are working with marginalised groups, as per the third group we identified though the Ashoka Thailand research.  


Ashoka: There is an exciting opportunity to foster collaborative spaces between lawyers and non-lawyers and, within that space, facilitate the co-development of hybrid approaches to complex issues. As part of this mission Ashoka should inspire and provide opportunities for young lawyers and law students to explore ‘changemaker law’ beyond narrow understandings of lawyering. 


The Ashoka Thailand research supports a hypothesis that law is a significant dimension, whether as a cause or a potential solution, to many of the social and environmental issues confronting society. It is only one aspect of such issues, but one that is critical to acknowledge and explore further when thinking about how to be an effective collective of changemakers.

** There are 99 living Ashoka Fellows in Thailand. Of these we found information on 85. Our research was conducted remotely and in English. We consider our rapid assessment to be a good start and propose follow up work to generate deeper analysis. 

Written by Harry Jonas (Future Law) with Ashoka analysis by Xiao Lin King (Australia National University). 

Very many thanks to Sinee Chakthranont (Ashoka Thailand) and Sumitra Pasupathy (Ashoka Singapore) for their encouragement to pursue this research and to a number of individuals who provided inputs to the emerging ideas.

ExploringHarry Jonas