Practice Note: The Process of NGO Law Reform in Central and Eastern Europe and the Newly Independent States

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Practice Note: The Process of NGO Law Reform
in Central and Eastern Europe and the Newly Independent States
By Doug Rutzen

The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) has learned a host of innovative
practices from its work on NGO law reform in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and the Newly
Independent States (NIS). This Practice Note highlights four specific “lessons learned.” A
synthesizing theme is that reform must be the result of an indigenous, transparent, and
participatory process. International organization s, such as ICNL, play an important role in
catalyzing the process, bringing key stakeholders together, and providing technical assistance
and comparative analysis. The interplay between the respective roles of indigenous and
international participants is crucially important to the ultimate success of any NGO law reform

I. Leadership by Indigenous Institutions and Individuals

In order for an NGO law reform process to be successful, it is important that indigenous
institutions and individuals assume ownership of the activities. Of course, international
organizations can serve as catalysts for the process and provide technical assistance and
comparative perspective, but they should not actually write the laws, nor should they lead
lobbying efforts. By enabling local initiative, in ternational organizations reinforce the notion of
self-help, promote democratic values, and help to ensure that laws appropriately reflect local

Local leadership presupposes local capacity. We have therefore made capacity-building
a cornerstone of our work, focusing on NGO repr esentatives, government officials, judges, and
private lawyers. Among other activities, ICNL has (1) provided training, comparative information,
and technical assistance to organizations and individuals engaged in NGO law reform; (2)
developed training programs to ensure that NGO representatives understand the law; (3) worked
with indigenous judges and ministry officials to create professional development seminars on
NGO law; and (4) trained law students and prac ticing lawyers through courses on NGO law,
continuing legal education seminars, conferences, and internships.

II. Drafting Groups Representing All Interested Parties

The degree to which the reform process invite s participation by all potentially interested
parties is frequently determinativ e of the success of a particular project. A process that is
representative of the views of NGOs, government officials, parliamentarians and others leads to
good laws, a stronger likelihood of enactment, and a vested interest among participants in
continuing the reform process. Of course, t here are often obstacles to such cooperation,
including lack of coordination between ministries and, sometimes, open hostility between the
government and NGOs.

ICNL believes that information can help bring people with different views together. We
have found that once the key stakeholders meet to discuss substance, they often decide to form
a drafting group to address unresolved issues. For example, in Albania, the Berisha government
proposed a law that would have imposed severe restraints on NGO activities, and there was
palpable tension between NGOs and the government. ICNL organized a seminar in Budapest to
discuss “regional best practices in NGO law,” wh ich attracted both NGO representatives and the
drafters of the restrictive law. As a result of this meeting, the participants agreed to form a joint
NGO-government working group, which has now pro duced one of the most progressive draft laws
in the region.

Similar drafting groups exist throughout the region, and virtually all have succeeded in
enacting legislation that meets local needs and conditions. In contrast, the Bosnian NGO
community embarked legal reform activities in isolation from the government. While the working

group was in the midst of preparing its draft, the government enacted an extremely restrictive Law
on Foundations. It is now proving exceptionally difficult to generate governmental support for
further revisions to the NGO legal framework.

III. Broader Public Participation

It is not sufficient to have a collaborative drafting group composed of a few key NGO
representatives and government officials. It is al so important that all stakeholders have a chance
to provide input on legislative reform.

Several innovative practices have developed in CEE. In Hungary, an NGO-government
drafting group published its draft law in a leading Hungarian newspaper. This encouraged input
from both NGO representatives and the broader public. The drafters then organized town
meetings around Hungary to promote further publ ic participation. Comments were codified and
reflected in the final version of the draft, which was enacted in 1997.

In Macedonia, the working group used broadcast and print media to publicize principles
to be included in the new law. They then distri buted the draft to all active NGOs and convened a
series of roundtable disc ussions to refine the draft. Simila rly, in Lithuania, the Parliament
organized a public hearing at which key NGO legal issues were discussed. In all these cases, the
fostering of public participation helped reinforce t he democratic process, ensured the relevance of
the legislation, and promoted trust among the sectors.

IV. Cross-Border Linkages

Regional and international linkages validat e and strengthen the commitment of network
members, while sharpening their skills by supplying them with comparative information and
expertise. ICNL has promoted these linkages through cross-border consultations, regional
conferences, seminars, academic networks, and other activities.

Importantly, information does not merely flow from West to East, or North to South, but
there is true information- sharing among countries. For example, a Bulgarian colleague was
asked to provide comments on the Hungarian law, and Macedonian colleagues provided
information to Croatia. In addition, there is si gnificant information-sharing among regions. The
drafter of the Polish Law on Associations provided technical assistance in Uzbekistan and
Azerbaijan, our Czech partner provided assist ance in Ukraine and Russia, and German experts
are studying CEE models as they prepare new legisl ation for their country. A core group of NGO
law specialists has emerged in CEE and the NIS, and they are advancing NGO law reform in their
respective countries and internationally.

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