Ethiopia’s new civil society law

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.

7 thoughts on “Ethiopia’s new civil society law”

  1. How clear is the line between political advocacy and non-political advocacy in human rights? Are you concerned about this law being used to constrain human rights advocacy per se? (by classifying it as political)

  2. While I take some of your points, some people will be concerned that this act is a reflection of systematic behaviour by the Ethiopian Government to strengthen its control on society and thereby diminish independent voices and criticisms from within. When a Government is being criticised for alleged human rights abuses in the Somali region, has troops engaged in a somewhat dubious war in Somalia, and has locked up (and recently re-locked up) opposition party leaders and members one can understand the desire to quell dissenting voices. Some people believe that this is part of a wider systematic trend for the Ethiopian Government, which is in part a legacy of its Imperial and Communist rule, to want to exert as much control over society as possible. All the land, and major companies/industries are state owned while obtaining posts in the civil service, even at the Woreda level, can be difficult without being at least symphaetic to the cause of the EPRDF. When looked at through this lens it is easy to see why some may think that the motivation for the bill is somewhat more sinister than you suggest and may be a precursor for an increased crackdown on independent voices within the country. One final thought, in a country with a GDP of less than $200, defining local NGO’s that have funding of over 10% from overseas as being international is highly restrictive. Some local NGOs will either have to take less money from overseas and so curb some of their operations, or be quiet. This may be exactly what the Government is hoping for.

  3. @Luis – I don’t think there is a line between political advocacy and non-political advocacy in human rights? Advocacy in human rights is, by its very nature, political. I think the line that you have to draw is between the kind of politics for which foreign intervention is acceptable, and the kind of politics for which it is not.

    @Phil – I don’t greatly disagree with your assessment of the Ethiopian Government. But I don’t think that this addresses the question of whether it is wrong in principle for a government to limit foreign funding in its politics. You may well be right that some local NGOs may have to curtail their foreign-funded activities; but this seems to me to be another way of saying that the domestic political space is currently crowded out by foreign funding. Is it wholly unreasonable for Ethiopia to want to limit this and to reclaim that political space for locally funded organisations?

  4. you make fair points (though without too much context, it must be said). Here in Tanzania there is considerable overlap between the agendas of internationally funded NGOs and opposition political parties. In both countries there isn’t a clear enough framework for ngo/csos. Yet shouldn’t you extend the argument to official aid flows? In a state like Ethiopia, shouldn’t the political space be reclaimed from foreign government influence? In Tanzania, much more compliant that Ethiopia on the face of it, nearly 40 percent of the government budget comes from overseas. How much political space is left for Tanzanians in such a situation? If you think its not an issue, your definition of ‘politics’ is very narrow.

  5. @kfc – I completely agree; I think the problem of foreign donors restricting the domestic political space is a very big problem. In far too many countries – especially those receiving large quanitities of budget support – donors act as if they are an opposition party.

  6. I don’t disagree with the principle of governments wanting to limit foreign funding. However, I have grave doubts that this is the true motivation for the legislation, and suspect that it is part of a wider agenda for the government to broaden its control over society. Also, as a large country Ethiopia receives a low level of aid per capita and thus already has more domestic political space than the majority of other Sub Saharan African countries.

  7. I stumbled upon this post because I’m a law student doing research in restrictions on foreign funding of NGOs. I’ve done a fair amount of work in NGO law as well. There are legal mechanisms to ensure that foreigners cannot donate to political parties or that political parties are not able to obtain NGO status. Most countries have these sorts of laws, and they protect against undue interference in the domestic political landscape. You prohibit NGOs from supporting a specific candidate or party, for instance. But under international best practices for NGO laws, NGOs should be allowed to engage in issue advocacy, as long as their funds aren’t going to candidates or parties that support their issues.

    The Ethiopian law, on the other hand, prohibits organizations with more than 10% of their funding from abroad (which, in practical terms, is virtually all Ethiopian NGOs) from engaging in supporting the most vulnerable members of society, among other things. These activities may be “political” in the broadest sense, in part because they effect who will be able to participate in the political system, but they are not political activities in the narrow sense of the UK law, for example. It is a de facto ban on human rights work, as well as work aiming to guarantee basic rights for women, minorities, children, and the disabled. And although the government may claim that it is seeking to avoid foreign interference in domestic matters, the fact is that the goal of this legislation is to prevent dissidents from gaining any power. (This is a very common “reason” restrictive governments give for passing anti-NGO legislation.)

    As a final legal matter, Ethiopia has signed onto international agreements (the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, for example) that prohibits restricting the right to free association (which includes NGOs’ rights to obtain funding) based on nationality.

    I enjoyed reading your post, though, and it actually alerted me to the fact that this law has been passed. I knew it was under consideration and likely to be passed, but I didn’t know it had made it. Thanks!

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