Regulating or Freeing NGOs?

15 January 1998

The Bank-commissioned Handbook on Good Practices for Laws Relating to Non-Governmental Organisations has been criticised in a report by the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. The Handbook is intended to help governments draft laws that will give NGOs legitimacy and protection.

The Lawyers Committee and some other commentators feel, however, that the draft Handbook endorses unwarranted intrusions on NGOs, and that government regulation must only be linked to some legitimate and clearly defined public interest. It concludes that

  • “the Handbook, as currently written, is inconsistent in fundamental respects with basic principles of the international law of freedom of association. It presents risks for NGOs whose activities may make them unpopular with governments by putting the World Bank’s imprimatur on regulatory mechanisms that can easily be used in ways not intended”.

The Committee urges the Bank to “fundamentally rework [the Handbook] in extensive and meaningful consultation with local NGOs”.

The Bank, and the International Center for Not for Profit Law (ICNL) which is working for the Bank on the Handbook, have circulated the report for comments and held meetings on it with NGOs, for example in Bangkok last November. Some NGOs, however, have been intimidated by the document’s length and complexity, and are concerned that only comments on details, not on the report’s overall approach are being considered seriously.

John Clark, head of the Bank’s NGO unit, says he is “very disappointed” that the Lawyers’ Committee critique “misinterprets and distorts the Handbook in many places”, but he plans to incorporate some of their suggestions and encourages other organisations to give their views.

The Lawyers Committee report is available from the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights, 333 Seventh Avenue, 13th Floor, New York NY 10001-5004, USA, Fax: +1 212 845 5299,


The draft Handbook, and a preliminary response to the Lawyers’ Committee are available from John Clark at the World Bank,