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Call for proposals: Closing the justice gap

Call for proposals

Date issued: February 15, 2021

Deadline for submissions of proposals: March 22, 2021

IDRC is pleased to launch a call for proposals for applied research projects of up to three years in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. This cohort of projects will seek to generate knowledge and evidence on how legal empowerment strategies work to overcome structural inequality and exclusion, expand participation, and promote public accountability.


This call for proposals seeks to generate evidence and learning to examine the power of community-based justice approaches to strengthen democracy and protect human rights. Globally, there is a growing justice gap: over half of the world’s population are excluded from the opportunities the law provides, and 1.5 billion people cannot access support to resolve justice problems often linked to the denial of public services. Rights violations have severe impacts on well-being and development outcomes, with disproportionate impacts on women and marginalized groups. People who lack legal identity, security of physical assets (housing, land tenure), or who encounter legal obstacles in the informal sector are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation and less able to access economic opportunities and public services such as health or education. Barriers in access to justice both perpetuate exclusion and reveal fundamental failings in governance systems. Investments in the justice sector have predominantly focused on reforming the formal institutions of the judiciary. While important, the impact of these investments on improving access to justice of marginalized populations have not been significant.  

People-centred, community-driven justice efforts offer a critical approach for improving public accountability and advancing equality and inclusion. The starting point of these efforts is the lived experiences and problems of ordinary people: a mother struggling to obtain an ID, or members of a fishing community seeking to stop a factory from illegally dumping poisonous chemicals in their waters. In the face of such challenges, legal empowerment approaches equip all people, especially the most vulnerable, to know, use, and shape the law. Drawing on evidence and experiences from grassroots cases, legal empowerment approaches seek to show how the law works in practice, where public systems meant to protect rights break down, and which reforms are needed. At the same time, legal empowerment approaches offer concrete tools to breathe life into rights and entitlements ‘on the books,’ and ensure that they are implemented in practice. At the heart are efforts to strengthen the participation, collective action, and power of vulnerable groups to seek redress and advocate for systems change. Research shows that when poor and vulnerable groups are able to understand their rights and their options under law, it transforms their experience as citizens and members of society.  

The current COVID-19 pandemic has presented a range of challenges to the rights of vulnerable populations in the Global South. In many ways, the pandemic has made deep, structural inequalities visible in new and unsettling ways. As a result, the ability to know, use, and shape the law, and to seek effective legal remedies has become even more critical. Access to food aid, health care, housing, sick leave, and unemployment benefits hinge on the ability to uphold one’s rights and navigate complex systems. Women are disproportionately affected as COVID-19 further hinders their ability to access basic and reproductive health services, to seek safety from sexual and gender-based violence, and to overcome discrimination within the formal legal system. While many legal empowerment organizations have demonstrated resilience and resourcefulness in meeting these challenges, the ability to assist vulnerable populations to uphold their rights is likely to face significant strains in years to come. Mobility restrictions and financial shocks have hampered the ability of many organizations to respond to those challenges and altered basic ways of operating, even as the economic crisis creates a surge in demand across all commonly experienced justice problems. In the coming years, new and unpredictable challenges of injustice, inequality, and barriers to development are anticipated to arise as the pandemic persists. The uncertain economic and political future that awaits countries during their recovery create both an urgency and opportunity for new learning on how legal empowerment can offer solutions for marginalized groups, especially women, to ensure a just response and recovery.  

In response to these knowledge and evidence gaps, IDRC seeks to support a cohort of local organizations to lead three-year applied research projects, which will investigate how persistent access to justice challenges in the Global South are being addressed using legal empowerment approaches and strategies which, in recent months, have been shaped in a COVID-19 world. Focusing on Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, the cohort of research projects will seek to generate knowledge and evidence on how legal empowerment strategies work to overcome structural inequality and exclusion, expand participation, and promote public accountability as part of a deeper vision of democratic governance.  

About the International Development Research Centre  

IDRC, a Canadian Crown corporation, funds research in developing countries to create lasting change on a large scale. We achieve this by providing developing-country researchers with financial resources, advice, and training to help them find solutions to local problems; by encouraging knowledge sharing with policymakers, researchers, and communities around the world; and by fostering new talent through fellowships and award. The call for proposals is led by IDRC’s Democratic and Inclusive Governance program area, which supports data, research evidence, and innovations that enable greater inclusion, accountability, and transparency, and empower communities — notably women and marginalized groups — to access their rights.  

About the Call: The challenge and the overall goal 

IDRC seeks proposals for applied action research projects of up to three years which can be either single country studies led by local organizations or multi-country studies, led by local organizations across countries. Research projects will focus on generating evidence about innovative legal empowerment approaches and experimentation from the field. Research will contribute to building a comparative evidence base on how legal empowerment approaches draw on the grassroots and community-level experiences of addressing specific violations and the leadership of those directly affected to achieve systems change. In particular, we will focus on how legal empowerment approaches can contribute to addressing the root causes of inequality and exclusion and to promoting public accountability (see research questions).  

Proposals will aim to contribute to promoting the rights of vulnerable groups and fostering more inclusive and accountable governance institutions through the following goals:  

  1. support innovation in community-driven, people-centred justice efforts   
  1. build regional knowledge and capacities of legal empowerment organizations and practitioners to achieve transformative systems change; and  
  1. strengthen regional and global policy engagement for community-driven, people-centred solutions to justice. 

The research supported under this call also aims to contribute to a larger learning agenda on legal empowerment. The learning agenda is designed to focus the efforts of hundreds of organizations on a set of common questions to develop comparative learning and address collective knowledge gaps. An overarching question for this learning agenda is how legal empowerment strategies can contribute to transforming the structural causes of inequality and exclusion. In particular, the learning agenda is seeking to generate evidence and learning about the pathways from casework to systems change. A guiding assumption is that by achieving progressive reforms legal empowerment organizations can contribute meaningfully to tackle governance challenges at scale – providing pathways for transforming institutions and generating new evidence on fundamental challenges in governance and democracy. 

Research questions this call seeks to answer 

Projects should support the generation of knowledge, evidence, and learning on what works, and under what conditions legal empowerment approaches can contribute to achieving systems change, especially for women and vulnerable groups. The following research questions will guide the data collection and analysis conducted by country-led teams regarding systems change:  

  1. How can legal empowerment approaches help to translate grassroots efforts addressing specific rights violations into improvements in broader laws, policies, and institutional practice?  

    A particular focus is on how these improvements advance key development and governance outcomes, notably:
  • Addressing the root causes of exclusion and inequality, for instance related to access to services; and/or
  • Promoting public accountability and advancing democratic norms, including expanding participation and greater respect for rights.
  1. How do legal empowerment approaches strengthen leadership and collective power among vulnerable and excluded groups and enable them to claim greater respect for their rights and drive changes to laws, policies, and institutional practice?

Within both areas of inquiry, the following are fundamental concerns:

(i) What types of strategies and reforms can expand the participation of women and vulnerable groups in public decision-making? 

(ii) How do legal empowerment approaches, engage the State through a mix of collaborative or adversarial strategies? How does the mix of strategies differ depending on political context?

(iii) How do legal empowerment approaches combine legal strategies with organizing and other forms of collective action to seek systems change?  

For examples of action-research projects related to legal empowerment,see the frequently asked questions.

Network collaboration

To foster deeper shared learning and collaboration across countries and projects, project teams will be grouped into cohorts for sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia. Project teams will be expected to participate in a series of joint activities, with other members of their regional cohorts, and with the whole group of projects across regions. Namati, the Legal Empowerment Network and Regional Hubs (supported under this initiative and also conducting research) will coordinate shared learning efforts across cohorts, and will organize joint activities with project teams at key points in the research process. These activities will include an inception workshop, mid-term workshops to share findings, and a closing workshop. Namati, the Legal Empowerment Network and the Regional Hubs will also interact with individual teams and groups of teams, through virtual platforms, to provide support and coaching on research activities, and to stimulate peer-to-peer exchanges and learning across the project cohorts. 

Every effort will be made to ensure that virtual and in-person meetings coincide with events of the Legal Empowerment Network, so that cohort teams can

  1.  benefit from interaction with experts and practitioners exploring similar learning questions as part of a broader shared learning agenda for the field, and
  2. lead or feed into relevant efforts that can amplify the impact of the evidence generated by action learning. 

Successful applicants will be invited to attend the Legal Empowerment Leadership Course, to be convened virtually over two weeks (April 30-May 17, 2021). The Course will provide an opportunity for cohorts to develop a common understanding of the conceptual framework of legal empowerment, as well as engage with a faculty of respected practitioners and academics on key themes.

Budget contribution and duration  

  • IDRC intends to provide grant funding for research projects of up to a maximum of CA$450,000 for individual country studies and up to a maximum of CA$800,000 for multi-country studies (up to three countries) for 36 months.  
  • Proposals must include an overall plan of activities for 36 months.  
  • Contribution in the form of co-funding and mobilization of third-party resources (public or private sector, other donor or stakeholder funding, etc.) to support and expand the research is encouraged.  


  • The proposed research must demonstrate how it would contribute to the overall goals and questions for this call for proposal. 
  • Applicants from non-governmental organizations, academia, and private and public-sector organizations with a strong research focus are eligible for this global call
  • We encourage applications from multi-disciplinary consortiums of organizations within a country, or across countries, bringing together capacity in terms of community-level or grassroots support, applied research and national-level advocacy. Given the focus on action research, strong preference will be given to consortia with organizations engaged in community-based justice work. A demonstrated history of successful collaborations by consortium members will be considered an asset though not a requirement. We will also consider joint project proposals that include up to three countries, particularly those that demonstrate a past history of successful collaboration, and include a cross-cutting thematic focus in the learning effort.  
  • Applicants from the United Nations system cannot apply to this call as lead or co-applicants. UN organizations may participate as collaborating organizations.  
  • A person cannot be the lead applicant for more than one project.   
  • IDRC encourages diverse and gender-balanced research teams. 
  • The lead applicant and co-applicants may negotiate and develop funding arrangements directly with third-party organizations for specific services. IDRC will not contract directly with third-party organizations. Applications that involve third-party organizations must clearly justify their involvement and explain their role(s).  The total third-party participation in a project is set at a maximum of 30% of the budget. 
  • Applicants must be committed to publishing research findings in the public domain in accordance with IDRC’s Open Access Policy.  
  • Applicants are encouraged to join the Legal Empowerment Network to benefit from being a member. Shared learning and comparative analysis across projects will be linked to Network activities (see above) (if not already a member, you can join for free here).   

For more information about eligibility please refer to the frequently asked questions

Research ethics  

  • It is the policy of IDRC that research work involving human participants be carried out in accordance with high ethical standards.  
  • Prior to commencing research, applicants may need to obtain approval from an official institutional or national research ethics body and will need to comply with the terms and conditions of the Grant agreement.  
  • In contexts where there is no official institutional or national research ethics body, the application will propose setting up of an ethics committee for the project. After approval of the project by IDRC, successful organizations are expected to submit the ethics and security protocols to IDRC. 

Cross-cutting considerations  

Applications must describe how the cross-cutting considerations presented below will be integrated into the design and implementation of the proposed research. While it may not be possible to address all considerations at the same level of depth, these will be considered in the selection process.  

  • Inclusion and equality

IDRC strives for equality in all aspects of its work. We support the generation of knowledge – including by individuals from diverse genders, communities, histories, and experiences – that tackles the systems that perpetuate inequalities on the basis of identity.  

Inequalities exist across multiple and intersecting categories of identity, including, but not limited to: gender, sexuality, age, class, race, caste, ethnicity, citizenship status, religion, and ability; taking an intersectional approach to equality recognizes these differences and understands diversity as central to advancing equality. Given that gender inequality is a significant barrier across all dimensions of diversity, IDRC invests specific efforts in ensuring its work promotes gender equality. For additional background, please see IDRC’s Equality Statement

In-line with that Statement, proposals should demonstrate how they will promote diversity and inclusion and adopt an intersectional approach, both in respect to (i) team composition and organizations comprising the research team and (ii) the research design, throughout the research process.  

  • Capacity building

Projects that combine research with capacity building of researchers, civil society organizations, and community members are strongly encouraged. Projects that have a mix of senior and junior researchers are encouraged. 

  • Southern leadership

IDRC’s mandate is to promote inclusive development in the Global South. Projects that are led by researchers from the Global South will be given more preference.  

Submission and review process  

IDRC invites eligible applicants to submit Concept Notes of 4000 words or less. Applicants should submit an electronic application through IDRC’s grant application submission system to this Call for Research Proposals before the deadline: March 22, 2021 at 12:00 am Eastern Daylight Time (Ottawa). Acknowledgements of receipt will be sent to all applicants whose application was received before the closing date and time. 

Please note, this application requires some investment of time, and the selection process is expected to be quite competitive. Organizations are encouraged to take these elements into consideration when deciding to prepare and apply. 

IDRC will work jointly with external reviewers from Namati and other organizations to select cohorts of grantees for sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia. Applications will first be screened for general eligibility. Eligible proposals will then receive a more detailed review. Depending on the volume of applications, IDRC might first conduct a short-listing process prior to the more detailed review.

Grantees will possess a strong interest in comparative learning; a motivated, capable team; and practical experience with legal empowerment methods.  

Final selection of grantees will be based on scoring and internal discussion, taking into consideration:

  1. strong individual projects,
  2. a motivated, capable team to lead the work,
  3. interest in collaborating with other participants, and
  4. fit for comparative learning. 

Applications will first be screened for general eligibility. Eligible proposals will then receive a more detailed review. Depending on the volume of applications, IDRC might first conduct a short-listing process prior to the more detailed review.  

Successful and non-successful applicants will receive notification of results by May 12021.  

Accepted applicants will be invited to develop a full proposal, with the guidance of IDRC officers. Proposals may receive specific comments from the reviewers, including budgetary adjustments. Applicants will be required to meet all IDRC’s standard requirements before receiving approval for any grant. The process for finalizing the project proposal, budget and administrative documentation is expected to take place between late-June and early-September 2021. 

Applicants with approved proposals will be required to sign a Grant Agreement with IDRC that details the terms and conditions for the grant.  

Unsuccessful applicants might be invited to participate in other Legal Empowerment Network learning events that can offer them additional skills and connections to support their projects. 

Review criteria  

Concept notes will be assessed against the following review criteria: 

Review criteria        

Percentage of score (%) 

Alignment and potential to make a unique contribution 

The proposal:  

  • Is closely aligned with the research questions  
  • Clearly explains how the project has the potential to make a new and unique contribution to the goals of the call 

(support innovation; regional knowledge and capacities to scale-up local impact; and strengthen regional and global policy engagement) 


 30 %

Research process and feasibility  

The proposal:  

  • Describes proposed research questions clearly, how they address a critical gap and integrate within existing efforts, within the 36-month funding period and allocated budget  
  • Provides clear and achievable milestones within the 36-month funding period  
  • Describes a clear plan for developing and implementing the research process, especially use of methodology, analysis of results, in answer of proposed questions 
  • Clearly includes and describes effective partnerships with organizations in sub-Saharan Africa, South East Asia  

 30 %

Results and policy influence 

The proposal: 

  • Describes proposed results of the research and any strategies or theories of change that link evidence-generation and learning to those results (within the 36-month funding period and allocated budget) 
  • Demonstrates potential impacts of research on policy processes and informing practice, highlighting strategies that would be used towards changing social and political norms. 

 20 %

Cross-cutting considerations  

  • Inclusion & equality, capacity building and southern leadership (please refer to Cross-cutting considerations section) 

 20 %

Finalization of grant for successful candidates:  

Please note that the technical selection of a concept note does not guarantee that it will be funded by IDRC.  

  1. Invitation to submit a full proposal. Successful candidates will be invited to submit a full Application for an IDRC Research Grant, which must meet the technical requirements of IDRC. 
  2. Proposal finalization - Prior to finalizing a Grant Agreement, IDRC reserves the right to request any revisions to the submitted proposal. A revised proposal with the necessary revisions must be returned in a timely manner to IDRC.  
  3. Administrative finalization - Administrative considerations must also be satisfactory. See IDRC Grants to Institutions.  
  4. Country clearance requirements - IDRC has conducted general agreements for scientific and technical cooperation with a number of governments. These agreements establish the framework for IDRC cooperation with that country by defining the rights and obligations of both IDRC and the government. As such, the applicant institution may be required to obtain country approval in accordance with these agreements prior to receiving funding from IDRC. This requirement applies only for selected applications. IDRC reserves the right to not pursue the funding of a selected project if the country approval is not secured within six months after IDRC officially announces approval of the project, as this would jeopardize the timely completion of the initiative.  

Any selected proponents shall be required to sign IDRC’s standard Grant Agreement, as amended by IDRC from time to time. Please refer to the sample of the general terms and conditions. The grant agreement will provide a schedule for submitting interim and final technical and financial reports.  

IDRC reserves the right to cancel the process at any time without prior notice and/or at its discretion to grant all or none of the awards under this process. 

How to Apply  

All applications must be submitted through an online application system by March 22, 2021 at 12:00 am EDT. Proposals received after the submission deadline WILL NOT be considered.  

Please visit the online application system and all the documents related to this Call.  

Applications can be submitted in either English or French.  

Additional documentation for application  

1. Template for draft budget 

2. Guidelines for acceptable project expenditures

3. Frequently asked questions


Any enquiries related to the call and application process should be sent by e-mail to All enquiries should be received on or before 17:00 ETD on March 17, 2021 to receive a response prior to the deadline date.  

Any enquiries which affect all applicants received on or before the above-mentioned deadline will be added to the FAQs with IDRC’s responses to those inquiries, without revealing the source of the inquiries.  

Conflict of interest:  

In submitting an application, the applicant must avoid any real, apparent or potential conflict of interest and will declare to IDRC any such conflict of interest. If any real, apparent, or potential conflict of interest cannot be resolved to IDRC’s satisfaction, IDRC will have the right to immediately reject the applicant from consideration. 

Permission for use and disclosure of information:  

By way of submitting an application under this call for competitive grants, the applicant consents to the disclosure of the documents submitted by the applicant to the reviewers involved in the selection process, both within IDRC and externally. The applicant further consents to the disclosure of the name of the applicant, the name of the lead researcher and the name of the proposed project, in any announcement of selected proposals.  

All personal information collected by IDRC about grant, scholarship and fellowship applicants is used to review applications, to administer and monitor awards, and to promote and support international development research in Canada and in the regions where IDRC operates. Consistent with these purposes, applicants should expect that information collected by IDRC may come to be used and disclosed in IDRC supported activities. 

Additional Important Considerations 

  1. Primary considerations in selecting projects are the proposal’s scientific merit and potential for development impact, including capacity building.  
  2. In addition, each proposal will be subject to IDRC’s risk management process that assesses IDRC’s ability to support programming in countries or territories according to Canadian law, and to monitor research activities. Countries where higher risk restrictions apply are continuously updated. Applications on or from these countries are welcome; but will be subject to additional approval by IDRC. IDRC reserves the right to reject proposals based on the geographical location of the applicant’s organization or based on relevant policy or legislative considerations. 
  3. IDRC does not make grants for basic operating expenses, endowments, or facilities for individual school districts, colleges, universities, or human services organizations. It does not generally make grants to individuals or make program-related investments. No curriculum projects within individual schools or colleges are supported. In addition, this call is purposely limited to selected institutions, and IDRC reserves the right to reject proposals from institutions not directly targeted. 
  4. As a Canadian Crown corporation, IDRC is subject to Canada’s Access to Information Act. Consequently, any submissions in response to this Call for Research Proposals will be held by IDRC in a manner consistent with the Access to Information Act, including IDRC's obligations to disclose documents requested by members of the public.  
  5. Although there is no limit on the number of co-applicants in one application, IDRC will only negotiate Grant Agreements with the organization of the lead applicant and the organizations of up to two co-applicants (i.e. up to three Grant Agreements per research project).  
  6. By way of submitting an application under this call, the applicants consent to the disclosure of the documents submitted by the applicant to the reviewers within IDRC and Namati and externally who are involved in the assessment and selection processes of proposals. If selected for funding, the applicants further consent to the disclosure of their name and the title of the proposed project in any announcement of selected projects. Unsuccessful proposals will be destroyed within 180 days after the close of the application period.  
  7. Applicants must be committed to publishing research findings in the public domain in accordance with IDRC’s Open Access Policy.  
  8. After an institutional assessment of an applicant’s organization is performed, IDRC reserves the right to require the applicant’s organization to partner with another institution as a condition of receiving the grant.