The Ethiopian Government passed a new law on Tuesday that limits the activities of foreign-funded organisations. The law prevents organizations that receive more than 10% of their funding from abroad from involvement in human rights, gender equality and conflict resolution. It has been greeted with howls of protest by international organisations.
I’m going to make myself very unpopular with lots of the ferenj here in Addis Ababa, many of whom make a good living working for NGOs with foreign funding and are up in arms about this. But I see where the Ethiopian Government is coming from, and I don’t think the law is completely unreasonable.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I would not have brought in this law. I think 15 years imprisonment (that was in the draft bill) for breaking this law is draconian. I do not think that government officials should have the right to attend internal meetings of civil society organisations.
But it is not unreasonable for the Ethiopian Government to say that foreign-funded organisations should not be able to use their funding to buy political influence and change in Ethiopia. Foreign donations to political parties are illegal in the UK – that is why there has been such a fuss about the allegations that George Osborne may have solicited donations from Russian oligarchs on a yacht. We are uncomfortable with the idea that very wealthy people should buy political power – that is why we have spending limits and caps on political donations – and in the UK we look rather pityingly at the United States, where funding by rich companies and individuals seems to dominate political life. Think what this must feel like in a very poor country, where even quite modestly wealthy organisations and individuals overseas have undreamt of wealth by comparison with Ethiopians, and try to use that disparity of wealth to buy change.
So why shouldn’t a very poor country be concerned to avoid having its politics shaped by foreign funding?
There are about 3,800 NGOs here in Addis, with a total budget of $1.5 billion a year. (That is a lot of money in a country in which the annual government budget is about $4 billion a year. The government health budget is less than $300 million a year.) The money going to NGOs could make a huge difference if it were used to improve government services directly, rather that to fund a motley collection of advocacy organisations and fragmented small scale delivery organisations.
It is important to note that the new law does not forbid civil society organisations from being involved in advocacy for human rights. It forbids organisations from being involved in political advocacy if they get more than 10% of their funding from abroad.
So while this law isn’t one that I would have introduced myself, I see where the Government is coming from. It is not completely mad. The hysterical over-reaction from donors, often under political pressure from international NGOs at home, is out of all proportion.