Global Programs

ICNL’s Global Programs aim to promote, support and defend the rights of civil society organizations worldwide, including the freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly, through norm setting activities at the global and regional level. Below is an overview of ICNL’s global programs. To learn about our regional activities, please click on the links to the left.


ICNL is a core partner in the Illuminating New Solutions and Programmatic Innovations for Resilient Spaces (INSPIRES) consortium, which combines cutting-edge research, strategic interventions, and a robust learning agenda to tackle civic space threats. INSPIRES aims to increase the knowledge and capacity of civil society organizations to respond to growing restrictions on freedoms of association, assembly, and expression around the world. INSPIRES is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented by Internews, ICNL, DevLab@Duke, PartnersGlobal, Results for Development (R4D), CIVICUS, and ZINC Network. The INSPIRES consortium combines cutting-edge research, strategic interventions, and a robust learning agenda to tackle civic space threats. ICNL is committed to preventing trafficking in persons. Our plan is here.

Civic Space Initiative

Around the world, governments are using the law to re­strict space for civil society. The Civic Space Initiative (CSI) is an innovative collaboration among four of the world’s leading civic space advocates – ARTICLE 19, CIVICUS, the World Movement for Democracy and ICNL – to address this troubling trend and ignite a pushback against the closing of civic space. We do this through empowering civil society and our allies with better information, analysis, advocacy opportunities, and skill sharing to enable innovative, flexible, and adaptive strategies to advance a progressive rights-based agenda.

To protect and expand civic space, the CSI aims to:

  • influence policy actors at the global, regional, and national levels to protect civic space;

  • empower civil society actors to advance civic space freedoms; and

  • increase the awareness and engagement of the public in supporting civic space.

The first phase of the CSI ran from 2012-16. The second phase was commenced in 2016 and runs until 2021. Support for the CSI is provided by the Government of Sweden. Learn more about the program here.


CSI Priority Areas

  • Engaging with United Nations (UN) mechanisms, such as the UN Human Rights Council; UN Special Rapporteurs (UNSRs), the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism, and the UN Human Rights Committee, to defend and advance progressive international law and norms protecting civic space.

  • Engaging in, and empowering CSOs to engage in, Global multi-stakeholder initiatives, such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation, and the Open Government Partnership, in order to promote civil society freedoms. These platforms are critical for advancing civic space as they convene stakeholders around shared interests, such as development effectiveness, open governance or counter-terrorism, and provide incentives for policy reform.

  • Engaging directly with regional mechanisms, such as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and raising national issues to regional and international bodies, as well as using standards developed in these bodies to inform national policy development and implementation. These mechanisms are immensely important in protecting and expanding civic space.

  • Providing technical assistance to policy actors at the national level, such as legislators, government officials, judges, and ombudsmen, who often have the most direct and immediate impact on civic space. By engaging with national policy actors, the CSI is linking the norm development at the global and regional levels with country-based reform efforts relating to civic space while also increasing the awareness of and support for civic space norms at the national level.

  • Empowering civil society actors to push back against the crackdown on civic space and to advance civic space freedoms. Specifically, ICNL empowers CSOs at the country level to defend against restrictive regulatory proposals and promote enabling legal reform. Recognizing that empowering local partners is dependent on robust information, ICNL also conducts research relating to emerging challenges faced by local partners, including artificial intelligence and civic space, disinformation, and public participation.

  • Raising awareness of the importance of civic space issues, as well as galvanizing greater public engagement in civic space issues.

Praise for CSI

“The CSI has been effective in meeting and exceeding most of its target outputs and outcomes, including improving the capacity of the UNSR, enabling CSOs to contribute to the UNSR’s work, enhancing cooperation among special mandate holders, improving CSO understanding of the UPR, and influencing key policies at the international, regional, and national levels”.

“The CSI’s greatest impact has been increased attention by key stakeholders to the importance of the civic space, including the establishment of new norms at the international and regional levels and a stronger sense of solidarity reported by CSOs and human rights defenders. The success of the UNSR in fostering an active and visible profile significantly contributed to this impact, as has support to CSOs in conducting advocacy at the international and national levels”.

Independent CSI End-of-Project Evaluation, 2015.


Legal Enabling Environment Program (LEEP)

Through the LEEP program, ICNL seeks to establish legal and regulatory frameworks that protect and promote civil society and civic participation. LEEP consists of three separate but interrelated project activities. First, ICNL engages in technical assistance to respond to legislation that either threatens the NGO enabling environment or presents opportunities for favorable NGO legal reform. Second, ICNL strengthens local capacitythrough the Global Forum on Civil Society Law and through a research fellowship program. Third, ICNL deepens the analytic basis for reform through research on select issues of NGO law, and through the dissemination of research materials.

The first phase of LEEP, the NGO Legal Enabling Environment Program (LEEP), ran from 2008-2013. The second phase, the Global Civil Society Legal Enabling Environment Project II (LEEP II), was commenced in 2013 and is scheduled to finish in 2018. Through LEEP II, ICNL supports and defend the rights of civil society organizations worldwide, including the freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly.


Examples of LEEP Accomplishments

  • ICNL provided technical assistance to local partners in more than 40 countries resulting in improvements to enacted laws, improvements to draft laws, and the withdrawal of threatening draft laws. During LEEP II alone, ICNL’s assistance resulted in approximately 20 positive modifications. Where supportive activities did not result in legislative successes, ICNL still empowered local partners to take concrete steps in support of enabling law or against restrictive proposals. LEEP II assistance resulted in more than 100 local partners gaining increased ability to influence law reform processes through a range of strategies and methods. 

  • ICNL expanded the knowledge and capacity of local partners. In Cambodia, ICNL worked with partners to develop and deploy a monitoring tool called the Fundamental Freedoms Monitoring Program (FFMP). The FFMP made a notable impact on the capacity of two local CSOs, which were both already highly capable organizations. Staff of both organizations gained skills and experience in developing and executing monitoring activities in a more systematic way than previously, which is likely to strengthen their overall research and advocacy work. In Pakistan LEEP II made substantial impact on the organizational capacity of the partner organization, which expanded and strengthened its networks, including enhanced links with international and national organizations interested in freedom of expression.

  • ICNL conducted a number of research studies to deepen the analytic base on civil society legal issues. Most recently, ICNL published a report on the legal framework for fundraising and country reports on the legal rules for crowdfunding; and will soon be completing research on transparency initiatives and surveillance laws.


Praise for LEEP/LEEP Testimonies

“LEEP activities – including technical assistance, fellowships, research, the Global Forum and monitoring efforts – helped empower participating civil society organizations to become more aware of their rights, gain an understanding of domestic legislative processes and international standards, increase their advocacy skills and communication with governments, and connect to supportive international networks”

Evaluation Report of the NGO LEEP Program, April 2013.

“91% of LEEP II beneficiaries that responded believe that LEEP II assistance with CSO law reform advocacy (e.g. consultations on planning advocacy strategy, developing written advocacy materials) was somewhat or very useful. Moreover, nearly two-thirds (63 percent) report the skills they have acquired have improved their ability to change the legal environment for CSOs in their country”

Cambodia Case Study, Oct. 2017


Lifeline: The Embattled CSO Assistance Fund

ICNL is part of the civil society consortium led by Freedom House implementing Lifeline: the Embattled CSO Assistance Fund. This fund, which is supported by 18 governments and two foundations, provides support to civil society organizations (CSOs) under threat or attack.  There are three categories of Lifeline assistance:

  • emergency grants to CSOs threatened because of their human rights work;

  • rapid response advocacy grants to give CSOs the resources needed to push back against closures of civic space as they arise;

  • resiliency grants to support CSOs at high-risk to avoid or mitigate the threats they face.

Learn more about the Lifeline Fund and how to apply here.


The Civic Freedom Monitor

ICNL's Civic Freedom Monitor provides up-to-date information on legal issues affecting civil society and civic freedoms – the freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly. The Civic Freedom Monitor incorporates reports on 54 countries and 8 multilateral organizations. Each country report provides an overview of key legal issues relating to civic freedom, with a focus on legal barriers to civil society activity. Each multilateral organization report provides an overview of the organization, with a focus on legal issues affecting civic freedom and civic participation.

Learn more about the Civic Freedom Monitor and individual country reports here.