Defending Civil Society

Since 2013, 103 countries have proposed more than 340 legislative initiatives that impact civil society.

Of these initiatives, more than 244 have been restrictive. The trend is truly global, with no geographic region immune. Restrictions have emerged in both authoritarian and democratic states, ranging from barriers to forming organizations and intrusive oversight procedures to limits on access to resources and the exercise of rights online.

 However, it’s not all bad news. In the past seven years, states introduced nearly 96 initiatives that enhance civic space. ICNL works to strengthen our partners – civil society organizations, government reformers, donors, and diplomats – so we can overcome and avoid constraints on civil society effectively.

(Icon credit: Kokota & Swifticons)

Key Initiatives

Civic Space Initiative

The Civic Space Initiative is an alliance of four global organizations—ICNL, Article 19, CIVICUS, and the World Movement for Democracy—that seeks to create a world in which civil society can thrive.

Lifeline Embattled CSO Assistance Fund

Through the Lifeline Embattled CSO Assistance Fund, ICNL provides rapid-response advocacy and resiliency grants to civil society organizations coping with urgent threats to freedoms of association, expression, and assembly.

Enabling & Protecting Civic Space

ICNL is a core partner in the Illuminating New Solutions and Programmatic Innovations for Resilient Spaces consortium, which tackles threats to civil society with cutting-edge research, strategic interventions, and a robust learning agenda.

Key Resources

Effective Donor Responses to the Challenge of Closing Civic Space

This 2018 report examines the ways in which donor governments can effectively support civic space in challenging environments.

Defending Civil Society, Second Edition

This 2012 report provides examples of the legal barriers that governments use to constrain civic space and articulates international legal principles to protect civil society.

A Global Assault on Nonprofits

This 2015 Journal of Democracy article by ICNL president Douglas Rutzen summarizes recent developments in the global crackdown on civil society.

All Defending Civil Society Resources

Renaming Civil Society

Renaming Civil Society: A Lifeline Guide for Narrative Change (cover of guide/Credit: Lifeline)
This guide, created by Lifeline, is meant to support activists, civil society organizations, and social ... Read More

ECNL: International Standards Protecting the Climate and its Defenders

Cardboard sign at protest that says Climate Justice Now (photo credit:
This guide, created by ECNL, explores the key standards that protect climate activists’ civic freedoms.  ... Read More

Civic Space and the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration

Migrants in hungary with barb wire fence (photo credit: Gémes Sándor/SzomSzed/Wikimedia)
This ICNL White Paper explains why the GCM’s failure to meaningfully include considerations of migrants’ ... Read More

Good Governance and Civic Space

Photo Credit: funky-data/iStock
Understanding the essence and practical value of human rights helps citizens enjoy and assert their ... Read More

Reform Initiatives to Protect Activists from Abusive Litigation

gavel in court room (photo credit:
This ICNL briefer outlines SLAPPs related projects, activities, and impacts and presents a pathway forward ... Read More

FARA’s Double Life Abroad

FARA’s Double Life Abroad
Around the world, governments are constraining civil society and dissent. A common tactic of these ... Read More
Explore our full resource collection, which includes reports, legal analysis, and curated collections of materials covering an array of issues impacting civic space around the world.