On “Aid Barriers and the Rise of Philanthropic Protectionism”: A Conversation with Douglas Rutzen, International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL)

Kyle Reis: How did you find your way into international not-for-profit law?

Doug Rutzen: I’ve been working with civil society for more than thirty years, twenty-five of them in a legal context.  In 1989, I was in Czechoslovakia just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and I got a job at the law school in Prague. The situation was fluid — and everything was possible. Vaclav Havel was elected President, and two of my former students were elected to Parliament. They asked me to serve as a legal advisor in the Czechoslovak Parliament, and my first task was to help draft the country’s nonprofit laws.

Kyle: It seems like we’re at a moment in history when international giving is on the verge of seeing its fullest expression while at the same time more and more constraints are being placed on NGOs, seemingly everywhere. How are these two disparate trends connected? Or is this a coincidence?  

Doug: When I first started working in the field, civil society had a generally positive aura, associated for example with the dissident movement in Central Europe, the struggle against apartheid, and democratic movements in Brazil and Chile. We see this reflected in the [UN General Assembly’s] Millennium Declaration of 2000, which trumpeted the importance of human rights and the value of “nongovernmental organizations and civil society, in general.”

One year later, the zeitgeist changed.  After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Bush administration launched the War on Terror, and NGOs became an immediate target.  Shortly thereafter, the Bush administration announced its Freedom Agenda, and NGOs were put in a squeeze. Space began to close on civil society, as some governments associated NGOs with terrorism and others associated NGOs with Bush’s Freedom Agenda.  

The Orange Revolution [a series of protests in Ukraine in late 2004–early 2005] was also a pivotal moment. Political leaders seemed to have an exaggerated sense that the protests were the result of foreign funding of civil society, and they began to draft law to restrict international funding. Momentum increased with the Paris Declaration of 2005, endorsed by 90 countries. This declaration referenced “host country ownership,” which certain governments morphed into “host government ownership.” And the wave of restrictions increased in amplitude after the Arab Spring. People were giving expression to their grievances, and in many countries, the empire struck back.

Kyle: In your recent paper, “Aid Barriers and the Rise of Philanthropic Protectionism,” you discuss the many barriers governments are erecting to constrain civil society. Can you summarize them here and say which one you find most worrisome?

Doug: I would roughly break down the key constraints into three general categories: The first is what I call “lifecycle” restrictions that constrain the incorporation/registration, operation, and general lifecycle of civil society organizations. The second relates to restrictions on international funding, including cross-border philanthropy. The third is a series of other measures that governments use to restrict civic space — restrictions on freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and so forth. The trend is deeply troubling, and all are concerning. By our count, since 2012 over 50 countries have introduced or enacted restrictive initiatives.  

Kyle: You’ve spoken of the need for foundations and others to speak out with a more unified voice in support of ICNL’s and other’s efforts to ensure that civil society has the ability to operate freely and democratically around the world. What recommendations could you offer on how the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors can support that?

Doug: We’re all in it together. It’s not just about groups that work on democracy and human rights. Space is closing on grantmakers and grantseekers engaged in public health, poverty alleviation, education, environmental conservation, and many other areas. Governments are increasingly challenging the role and value of civil society and philanthropy. We can’t allow governments to unilaterally define our future. We need to engage in this debate and make history — for together, we have the power to shape the future of civil society and philanthropy in the twenty-first century.

Kyle: Excellent advice for all of us who care deeply about NGOs and civil society. Thanks for your time.  Keep up the good work.

Doug: Thank you, Kyle.  Always a pleasure.


Author of the recent article “Aid Barriers and the Rise of Philanthropic Protectionism” (International Journal of Nonprofit Law 17, no. 1 [Mar. 2015]), Douglas Rutzen is president and CEO of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL).

ICNL has worked in 100 countries to develop the legal framework for civil society, public participation, and philanthropy. Doug is also an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center, where he teaches international civil society law. Under Doug's leadership, ICNL received a MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions, the organizational analogue to MacArthur's "genius award" for individuals.

In 2013, Doug presented remarks at a UN General Assembly side event moderated by President Obama, and the Nonprofit Times recently named Doug one of the most influential nonprofit leaders in the United States.

Doug is co-chair of the civil society pillar of the Community of Democracies. In addition, Doug co-chaired the State Department's Global Philanthropy Working Group and trained diplomats at the Foreign Service Institute, and he is on the Board of InterAction.

Doug previously taught at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and the Central European University. He has written a textbook on international civil society law and has published in a number of prominent publications, including the Harvard International Review.

Doug first began working with civil society in the mid 1980's, when he served as a consultant to Helen Keller International in Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Doug is a graduate of Yale Law School, with undergraduate studies at Cornell and Oxford.


This interview was conducted by Kyle Reis, East Coast representative for NGOsource.

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