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Ethiopia: A self-defeating Charities and Societies Proclamation Hurting All

One of the many things globalization is credited for is that it has “considerably weakened traditional governance processes,” according to Professor Charnovitz Steve, a well-known writer on non-state actors in governance. “Increasing global economic integration has reduced the power of national governments while granting other economic and political actors access to the world stage,” Charbovitz wrote.

In Ethiopia the emergence of rigorous and formal Non-Governmental Organizations/Civil Society Organizations (NGOs/CSOs) dates back to barely two decades ago, although a few NGOs were already there during the imperial era, which were established according to the 1960 Civil Code. But most of the voluntary initiatives were run only by members of the royal family and a few foreign individuals.  The trend was not so much different during the subsequent Derg regime. According to Jeffrey Clarke, who wrote about Ethiopia’s civil society organization activities in late 1990s, there were two groupings of NGOs during the Derg regime: international relief agencies which were officially accepted by the regime and the humanitarian sections of armed opposition groups operating beyond its control.


The two decades from 1991 to 2009 are known as a period when a remarkable progress in the numbers and activities of NGOs/CSOs was seen in the history of the country. A relatively enabling atmosphere and significant contributions by these NGOs/CSOs (the latter renamed as Charities and Societies Organization, ChSOs) to various programs that the country was desperately embarked on gave boost to the birth of hundreds of NOGs and ChSOs.

Because of that, and enabling political changes the country was experiencing, foreign donor organizations such as USAID, Global Fund, CDC, Clinton Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation have relentlessly bankrolled the entire programs to fight HIV/AIDS, Malaria, TB, vaccination and institutional capacity building programs that were undertaken by as many NGOs/ChSOs in Ethiopia over the past two decades.

In came the new law…


Alarmed by the activities of some NGOs and ChSOs that the Ethiopian government has claimed were involved in political activities, the government has adopted a new Proclamation No. 621/2009 in 2009. Alas, it became one of the number of controversial proclamations the country has enacted since the current regime came into power in 1991.

A sober analysis of the law reveals enacting it was timely (and perhaps necessary) because the more than 2,000 charities and societies organizations operating in the country prior to 2009 were functioning without a comprehensive and binding legal framework.

Before the introduction of proclamation No. 621/2009,  administration of and whatever weak oversight over NGOs/ChSOs activities were carried out either under ministries and other times under especial commissions which jumbled different programs by charities and societies in cluttered file rooms while lax structures allowed at times for  NGOs and ChSOc to partner with regional governments and work with their portfolios totally outside of  a mandated federal oversight.

The government has tried to provide some policy objectives and rationales about the proclamation.  Some of its arguments include the fact that the previous law was outdated and did not correspond to the level of development, characteristics, and activities of the civil society organizations in Ethiopia; the need to facilitate for civil society organizations to become development partners of the government;  the need to create a conducive environment to enable citizens to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed right to association; and the need to identify illegal activities within the civil society organizations and  penalize the offenders. Many, including members of NGOs/ChSOs have applauded the government for its initiative to modernize the system of registration and regulation of NGOs/ChSOs in Ethiopia.

…and its troubles


The biggest headache is that the new proclamation distinguishes between organizations based on their sources of funding.  Those that receive 90% or more of their funds from Ethiopian citizens are called “local” organizations. NGOs/ChSOs based in Ethiopia but that receive more than 10% of their funding from international sources are termed as “resident” charities & societies.  Organizations based outside of the country and funded outside are called “international” organizations.

Among charitable purposes stipulated under Article 14 of the proclamation, only local Ethiopian Charities and Societies (those receiving less than 10% of their income from foreign sources) can work on the advancement of human and democratic rights, the promotion of equality of nations, nationalities and peoples and that of gender and religion, the promotion of the rights of the disabled and children’s rights, the promotion of conflict resolution or reconciliation and the promotion of the efficiency of the justice and law enforcement services.

The government’s insistence that seeks to make charities and societies concentrate on direct financial support and service delivery is inexcusably short sighted. Today advocacy works by NGOs/CSOs are deemed the most effective way worldwide to ensure sustainability and ownership of development projects. One of the decisive roles played by advocacy is that it transforms people into proactive citizens and supports governance to evolve into accountable organs to the governed. Here it is worth reckoning the case for Bangladesh, where millions of Bangladeshis are uplifted from absolute poverty thanks to a healthy relationship between the government and hundreds of NGOs/CSOs operating in the country. But in Ethiopian case it is in this very context that the advocacy and accountability roles played by NGOs/CSOs drew much furor from the state as the ideology outlaws any mobilization of people by any other entity except its own.

A bulk of the professional monitoring and evaluation task also takes place at NGOs/CSOs more visibly than in the public or private sectors in a given country. This is not to say clean administration characterizes charities and societies but major donors such as USIAD, DFID and WB have rigorous accounting and monitoring procedures that implementing agencies (often NGOs and CSOs) must stick to. These donors’ agencies have put in place checks and balances that strive to assure money originally signed off is spent properly and according to the plan.

Ironically, behind the empty rhetoric of the government on being a strong independent state, a sad truth prevails that funding the protection of basic services, donors’ preferred way of channeling money since the 2005 disputed election, and the expanded health and education programs and their continued technical progress continued to be bankrolled by international donors and implemented by NGOs & CSOs.

Owing to the new proclamation however, Ethiopia has seen hundreds of NGOs/ ChSO vanishing from the country. Indispensible engagements by local NGOs such as Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA), Action Professionals Association for People (APAP) and Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCo) have been significantly affected. More recently Heinrich Böll Foundation, a German NGO funded by Green party and involved in promoting human rights and democracy pulled out of Ethiopia in protest of the law.

A major reason behind the impasse remains, preceded only by the hollow and resource-less ideological line that snubs civil society but wants its expertise and money, is the state’s lack of understanding of the technical nature and structure of NGOs/ChSOs interventions in the country.

Non-state parties have the crucial comparative advantage of working on cross-sectoral issues in addition to expansion and provision of basic services and scaling up of economic opportunities for disadvantaged and marginalized sections of society. They also foster innovation through models successfully tested and adopted on micro-finance, research methods, participation, new technologies, community organization, capacity building, and effective use of awareness raising and social inclusion tools much better than the currently available political tools at the state’s disposal.

Professor Charnovitz Steve made a good point when he argued NGOs/CSOs are not only stakeholders in governance, “but also a driving force behind greater international cooperation through the active mobilization of public support for international agreements.”

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Thursday, 13 June 2024