Inspiring Innovations: How infrastructure organizations create thriving civic space

By Douglas Rutzen & Alexandra Deblock, International Center For Not-For-Profit Law

In recent years there has been a flurry of legislative activity affecting civil society and philanthropy. According to ICNL’s tracking data, 94 countries have proposed more than 269 legislative initiatives over the past six years. It’s not all bad news; one-third of the initiatives would enhance civic space

Data indicate three primary forms of legislative pressure on civic space over this time period:

• Lifecycle legislation restricting the formation, registration, and operation of civil society organizations (CSOs)

• Legislation constraining the ability of CSOs to receive international funding; Legislation restricting peaceful assembly

Among these constraints, restrictions in “lifecycle” legislation appeared most often, with restrictions on international funding and peaceful assembly occurring with nearly equal frequency.

In recent months, our tracker has picked up “innovations” that go beyond these traditional forms of constraint. For example, in Tanzania recent amendments to the Statistics Act make it illegal to discredit or challenge any official government statistic. In Uganda, after songs critical of the government gained popularity, the government proposed regulations that require artists to have their lyrics and scripts vetted by the authorities.



In Hungary the Orbán government imposed a 25% tax and other restrictions on civil society organizations assisting migrants. Governments are innovating when it comes to civic space restrictions and we must also innovate to protect and expand civic space.

“Scores of progressive laws have been enacted — and restrictive laws defeated — because of the advocacy work of WINGS members and other infrastructure organizations”

Progress in action: the role of infrastructure organizations

Within this context, ICNL is partnering with infrastructure organizations in every region to help protect and, where possible, expand civic space. A few examples follow.

Informing the Development of International Norms

Countries including Russia, China, and Egypt are investing in diplomacy to weaken international norms underpinning civic space. Meanwhile, traditional supporters of enabling standards for civic space, such as the US government, are less focused on multilateralism.

Civil society must therefore ramp up efforts to protect international norms supporting civil society and philanthropy. Otherwise, if norms regress, autocratic governments could more easily defend restrictive legislation with reference to international standards. Without progressive guiding norms it would also become more difficult to mobilize multilateral engagement to safeguard civic space, and colleagues working within countries would have less international solidarity and support.

Infrastructure organizations play an important role in safeguarding international norms and they can achieve impact. Consider the Global Coalition on FATF. Financial Action Task Force (FATF) Recommendation 8 originally singled out CSOs as “particularly vulnerable” to terrorist abuse, which resulted in governments justifying national-level laws to constrict civic space under the guise of adhering to global counterterrorism policy. A group of infrastructure organizations, including the European Foundation Centre, Human Security Collective, Charity & Security Network, the European Center for Not-for-Profit Law, and ICNL worked together to address this challenge. As a result of the Coalition’s efforts, FATF removed the “particularly vulnerable” language, called on governments to respect fundamental rights and humanitarian law, and cautioned governments not to overregulate CSOs.

We have seen similar impact by infrastructure organizations at the regional level. In Africa, for example, partners identified the need to articulate regional norms on the freedom of association and assembly. Infrastructure organizations, including regional networks of human rights defenders, worked together to create landmark Guidelines on Freedom of Association and Assembly in Africa. The Guidelines were adopted by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) in 2017 and the network is now developing a monitoring tool to promote appropriate implementation of the Guidelines.

Advocating for Enabling National Laws

In every region, WINGS members have played an important role in assessing legislative needs, defining priorities, building coalitions, developing advocacy campaigns, undertaking research, and monitoring the impact of new legislation. Indeed, scores of progressive laws have been enacted – and restrictive laws defeated – because of the advocacy work of WINGS members and other infrastructure organizations.

Navigating the Legal Environment

For CSOs, each new law becomes part of a complex legal environment that affects their day-to-day operations. Infrastructure organizations are vital in helping CSOs navigate the legal environment. For example, infrastructure organizations can share information through written guidance, webinars, communities of practice, legal services, and in-person convenings.

This information can be particularly helpful in restrictive environments. For example, we work in a country where the government enacted complicated reporting requirements with fines for non-compliance that would bankrupt most organizations. An infrastructure organization provided assistance to hundreds of CSOs to navigate these requirements so they could continue to operate.

“We must challenge ourselves to dream of thriving civic spaces and the steps we must take to get there”

Protecting CSOs

Infrastructure organizations have deep networks and are a strong voice in promoting solidarity across the sector. For example, in 2017, former U.S. Congressman (and now Governor of Florida) Ron DeSantis proposed an amendment to a bill that would have banned Islamic Relief Worldwide from receiving any funding from the federal budget. A diverse group of more than 50 organizations, including the American Jewish World Service, American Hindu World Service, Catholic Relief Services, ICNL, and InterAction, came together to sign a letter in opposition. The amendment was defeated.

Engaging the Public

Infrastructure organizations can also work to create positive narratives around philanthropy and civil society. They have the ability to promote a culture of philanthropy, engage the business community on corporate social responsibility, and highlight the importance of civil society to the public writ large.

There are interesting examples from around the world. To capture the imagination of youth in Afghanistan, ICNL and its partners appealed to the most popular form of entertainment in the country: quiz shows. More than 300 students from schools around the country gathered in an auditorium to answer questions relating to the value of civil society, civil society law, and gender. Students were randomly selected to appear on stage as the show broadcast on national TV, so students and their families tuned in to see if their friends would be called to compete. The show used entertainment to inform Afghans about the role and value of civil society.

Infrastructure organizations are also useful in heightening public awareness about the threats to the sector. When Australia proposed a bill on foreign interference, more than 40 CSOs and infrastructure organizations came together to form the Hands Off Our Charities alliance. The Alliance produced videos and written materials to educate the public, and members rallied more than 160 organizations to sign an open letter to the government to reject the legislation. Together they were successful in preventing the bill from unduly restricting CSO advocacy work.

Shaping the future of civic space

In many countries, CSOs find themselves in a reactive position, requiring them to respond to the current news cycle and the agendas set by governments. As a result, they lack time to think about the long-term future of the sector. Infrastructure organizations therefore have an important role in shaping the future of civil society and philanthropy.

As a modest contribution to this visioning process, ICNL is launching “Civic Space 2040.” Through this initiative we will work with partners to identify trends that will affect civil society and philanthropy in the coming decades. We will then engage partners to construct an inspirational vision of the future and to begin mapping actions to achieve this vision. In developing this initiative, we drew inspiration from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He didn’t mobilize a movement by proclaiming, “I have a problem.” Rather, he had a dream, and we must also challenge ourselves to dream of thriving civic spaces and the steps we must take to get there.

This excerpt can be found on pages 5, 6 and 7 of WINGS Impact Case Studies: Promoting an enabling environment for philanthropy and civil society. Read the full publication here.


ABOUT ICNL: The International Center for Not-forProfit Law (ICNL) promotes a legal environment that strengthens civil society and advances the freedoms of association and assembly, philanthropy, and public participation around the world. Since 1992, ICNL has provided technical and research assistance in more than one hundred countries, spanning virtually every political, economic, and legal system

Circle Picture (3)

Douglas Rutzen

President and CEO, International Center For Not-For-Profit Law



Circle Picture (2)


Alexandra Deblock

Program Officer, International Center For Not-For-Profit Law

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