By Dr. Annette Mbogoh, Executive Director, Kituo cha Sheria (Founding Member of ACE-AJ) Kamili Ruhinda, Executive Director of TANLAP.

Last year, I had the privilege of representing the African Centre of Excellence for Access to Justice (ACE-AJ) on global platforms to advance access to justice, human rights, and the rule of law. As a legal practitioner from the Global South, the objective of my participation was to amplify the voices of the grassroots communities that may never have an opportunity to engage in such international, high-level spaces due to systemic barriers such as travel costs, visa restrictions, and language among others.

I participated in the Global Summit of the Open Government Partnership in Tallinn, Estonia and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Summit in New York, United States. The experiences have been invaluable, not only for the personal growth and insights they have provided but also for the significant opportunities they have opened for ACE-AJ to further its mission of advancing access to justice, universal human rights, and the rule of law for marginalized and impoverished communities across Africa. I share my reflections on international spaces and interrogate grounded universalism and the importance of integrating local voices in global platforms. 

Grounded Universalism in Global Spaces.

Grounded universalism posits that global initiatives should be firmly rooted in and reflective of local community realities. In essence, it emphasizes the importance of centering initiatives within the lived realities, experiences, cultural contexts, and priorities of communities. The approach resonates deeply with the ethos of community justice, which has long been a cornerstone of legal empowerment efforts across Africa. Therefore, grounded universalism reaffirms that justice interventions must be grounded in and emerge from the realities of the communities that they seek to serve; in other words, people-centered approaches that have communities in mind at the point of design, implementation, and outcomes of justice interventions.  

From the lens of grounded universalism, the Open Government Partnership and the UN SDG Summit both demonstrated the crucial role that international collaboration and dialogue could play in the struggle for justice that is people-centered. These meetings offer a platform for sharing grounded experiences, learning from best practices, forming strategic partnerships to amplify our efforts back home and shaping global narratives with local realities.

At the OGP meeting, our delegation, including Wilhelmina Mensah and Abdul Tejan-Cole, actively engaged in sessions on legal empowerment and open government values and principles. My participation in the panel discussion on “Legal Empowerment: Pathway to Meaningful Co-creation of Justice Solutions” was particularly impactful. This session underscored the importance of local-level collaborations between civil society organizations (CSOs) and governments, showcasing successful models from Kenya, the Philippines, Moldova, and South Africa. These discussions emphasized how legal empowerment can drive citizen engagement, institutional agenda-setting, and sustainable cross-sector partnerships. In line with grounded universalism, the panel discussion demonstrated that grounded experiences in Kenya, Philippines, Moldova and South Africa informed the global OGP values of openness, transparency, accountability and citizen engagement; hence, the local and grounded experiences resonated with global standards for an open government.We concluded that transformative partnerships between governments and civil society organizations to enhance citizen engagements were possible. The Open Government Partnership model emerged as a platform through which the lived experiences of communities can be harnessed either directly or indirectly through civil society organizations in co-creation and co-implementation processes. These grounded experiences can then inform OGP’s global priorities.

Similarly, our involvement in the SDG events gave us a deeper understanding of the global landscape and the interconnectedness of peace, justice, inclusion, and strong institutions (SDG 16+). These interactions reinforced the necessity of integrating community voices into high-level policy discussions and highlighted the need for more inclusive and accessible global forums. That as it may, the UN space remained quite exclusionary for many civil society actors from the Global South due to its rigid processes and procedures around access to plenary discussions and the dichotomy between state actors and non-state actors. Our interactions mostly involved other non-state actors and or the already “converted actors”. It was felt that future engagements should deliberately include strategic conversations with African government officials either prior to or during the SDG events. With the limited engagement in UN spaces, the outcomes and resolutions of the Summit may fail to capture grounded priorities.

The Power of Global Engagement.

The insights and connections gained from attending these global conversations are instrumental in advancing ACE-AJ’s objectives. By participating in global discussions, we advocated for comprehensive justice delivery approaches more effectively due to our unique grounded experiences. The opportunity to collaborate with international stakeholders, including governments, CSOs, and legal professionals, helps us address systemic barriers to justice and push for legal reforms that support community-based justice systems.

Engaging in high-profile global meetings raises the visibility of ACE-AJ’s work. Showcasing best practices and the effectiveness of holistic justice approaches thereby enhancing our reputation as a leading voice for African perspectives on access to justice.

Exposure to diverse experiences and innovative models worldwide provides valuable learning opportunities for ACE-AJ members. These insights will inform our future capacity-building initiatives, enabling us to better support our network of African civil society organizations in their efforts to deliver justice and uphold human rights.

Global meetings foster a sense of international solidarity and shared purpose. We build a supportive community committed to advancing justice and human rights by engaging with peers from different regions. This network of allies is crucial for sustaining our efforts and achieving our long-term goals.

Looking Ahead.

As we continue to navigate the complex landscape of global justice and human rights, it is essential for ACE-AJ to maintain an active presence in international forums. Our participation not only enriches our understanding and capabilities but also ensures that African voices are heard and respected in global decision-making processes.

The experiences and lessons from these meetings will guide ACE-AJ’s future initiatives, from advocating for policy reforms to implementing innovative justice delivery models. By embracing a global perspective and fostering collaboration, we can make significant strides towards our mission of enhancing access to justice and human rights across Africa.

In conclusion, participation in global platforms is not just about being present but about actively engaging, learning, and contributing to a collective vision of justice and equity for all. For ACE-AJ, these opportunities are vital for driving meaningful change and advancing our commitment to social justice, equity, and human dignity.

Dr. Annette Mbogoh, Executive Director, Kituo cha Sheria-Legal Advice Centre, Kenya, Founding Member, African Centre of Excellence for Access to Justice (ACE-AJ)