Wednesday, April 6, 2011

New Clinic Focuses on Global Poverty Lawyering

The newest entry on Yale Law School’s clinic roster is already making positive waves in several important areas, despite the fact that it’s less than a year old. Begun in the fall, the Transnational Development Clinic is the brainchild of Yale law clinical professor Muneer Ahmad, who wondered about the role of lawyers in development work specifically with regard to global poverty, what special expertise they could bring, and how they might engage in this work in a way that’s community-based.

“The phenomenon of global poverty has been addressed by economists, philosophers, development experts and others, but lawyers have said comparatively little,” said Ahmad. “While human rights lawyers address a range of issues that affect global poverty, we are focusing specifically on development lawyering. We wanted to determine what lawyers can do or already are doing in this area, explore the intellectual framework for such work, identify the skills needed, and then begin teaching those skills and approaches to students interested in doing law and development work.”

Ahmad offered a clinic that would focus, not on international development institutions, but on community-based clients in need of legal advice and representation to promote specific development projects. Nine students signed on, including Megan Corrarino ’12.

“If you look at big historical trends in international development,” said Corrarino, “you see a pattern in which development institutions think they have the answers, impose programs based on those answers, and only later recognize that parts of their approach are fundamentally flawed. Rather than repeating a pattern of top-down development, we’re looking at projects that allow target communities themselves to access resources and to advocate for the solutions they have identified as most appropriate, based on their own needs.”

Corrarino is part of a team working with the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a union in India that represents self-employed women in various professions, including street vending. Street vending is a hot issue in India, where the government was recently ordered by its Supreme Court to draft, by the end of June, legislation that balances vendors’ rights to earn a living with public space needs. The approximately two million street vendors in India are disproportionately women and are among the most socially and economically vulnerable workers in India’s urban sectors.

In October, SEWA asked the clinic for a comparative study of street vending regulations around the world, and Corrarino and fellow team members Tienmu Ma ’12 and Robby Braun ’11 got busy, researching laws in more than 20 countries and 30 local jurisdictions. Their goal was to identify best practices and come up with recommendations for how the new legislation in India could best protect the rights of the country’s street vendors.

In January, thanks to a grant from the Oscar M. Ruebhausen Fund at Yale Law School, the team, accompanied by Ahmad and clinical visiting professor Laurel Fletcher, traveled to New Delhi to present the results of their research. During their nearly weeklong stay, they visited street markets, met with local and national government officials and other stakeholders, and consulted with vendors and their representatives.

“It was an amazing opportunity to see how the laws we had studied in theory would be interacting with realities on the ground and to build meaningful relationships with our partners in India,” said Corrarino.

Since their return home, Corrarino and her team have continued to research the issue and provide street vendor advocates in India with additional arguments and draft language for incorporation into the forthcoming legislation. They also organized a panel discussion at Yale Law School on the challenges faced by street vendors, featuring speakers from SEWA and from the Urban Justice Center’s Street Vendor Project in New York. Read the Street Vendor study here.

A second clinic project deals with remittances—the money immigrant workers in the United States send back to their home countries. Remittances from the U.S. total approximately $45 billion a year, much of which is sent $200 to $300 at a time by low-wage immigrant workers. Remittances have a positive effect on transnational development, contributing to economic growth and to the health, education, and livelihoods of those in developing countries, but immigrants often face significant barriers in transferring money home. Remittance team members Grace Armstrong ’11, Diala Shamas ’11, and Miguel Defigueiredo ’11 are working on ways to eliminate those barriers, including putting together a policy proposal to banks and regulators on how to improve access to banking and financial services for immigrants.

“It’s important for a number of reasons,” said Armstrong. “First, banks are better regulated, more secure, and a better value than alternatives like check-cashers. There’s also the issue of personal safety in some areas—someone who doesn’t have a bank account is much more likely to be a robbery target because they don’t have a secure place to store their money. Second, if you want to combat money laundering or the financing of terrorism, it’s important to get people to use regulated financial services.”

“Being banked or having a credit score is essential to full participation in the American economy,” added Shamas. “Despite very responsible financial behavior, immigrants are still being kept out of the system.”

Shamas says one concern is that identification requirements may be keeping many immigrants from accessing financial services, even though as far as the laws are concerned, most of them have adequate identification.

“To understand the problem—whether it’s the banks who are not accepting permissible I.D.’s, or whether regulators are preventing them from doing so, or if it’s something else—we are surveying a variety of financial institutions about their customer identification policies and the process through which they settled on them,” she said.

The Transnational Development Clinic also tries to focus on projects that have a meaningful connection to the United States, and the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) team is filling that bill. Team members Daniel Knudsen ’12, Scarlet Kim ’11, and Sirine Shebaya ’12 are assisting U.S. workers who have lost their jobs due to changes in international trade policy or outsourcing—helping them to apply for federal benefits and representing them in appeals to the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Court of International Trade when they’ve been denied benefits. The team is also doing community education, reaching out to more marginalized workers who may not be aware of benefits to which they are entitled.

Knudsen says the TAA team has had several satisfying victories so far, including certifying hundreds of workers at the Pratt & Whitney jet engine plant in Cheshire for benefits.

“A great moment was when our team attended the training session of the former workers of the Pratt & Whitney plant. Seeing a roomful of people who would now obtain benefits, including health care tax credits and money for further education and skills training, was really rewarding,” said Knudsen.

In addition to all the field work the students are doing, the Transnational Development Clinic offers a weekly two-hour seminar, co-taught by Professors Ahmad and Fletcher, in which students explore the relationships among law, development, and advocacy and learn practical skills such as brief writing, oral advocacy, and policy advocacy. The clinic is a “work in progress,” according to Ahmad, that will definitely continue in the fall.

“The students have been incredibly entrepreneurial,” he said. “They are co-creators of the clinic.”

“It’s been very rewarding watching each of the projects develop over the course of the year,” said Armstrong. “In addition to our current main areas of focus, we have a set of projects that are often based on individual students’ interest that are being ‘incubated’ for future years.”

“I recognize that the opportunity to do real, meaningful international work and to take a week-long work trip to India is not part of the typical law school experience,” said Corrarino, “and I think the fact that all of our student teams are getting to have such varied and unique experiences in our clinic’s first year really reflects the strength of the clinical program here at Yale Law School.”