By Sesina Hailou
It would not be an overstatement to say that prior to the year 2005, Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) were relatively vibrant and thriving throughout Ethiopia. According to reports, CSOs operating in the country between 1991 and 2005 were in a much better position in terms of finance and human resources. True to form, there was a relatively better working environment and the NGOs were advancing specific issues. In fact, according to some commentators, a handful of these NGOs managed to exert pressure on the government to change laws and policies.
However, in February 2009, the Ethiopian parliament tabled a proclamation governing the registration and regulation of charities and societies. Back then, the draft of the proclamation had raised alarm among CSOs working in the country and some international partners, but after limited consultation with stakeholders, it was passed into law with many of its contested provisions intact. So, after 2009 dozens of NGOs were also prohibited from operating in different parts of the country because of the new law.
Now, a new law is in place repealing the infamous restrictive Civil Society and Charity Proclamation. The new proclamation, which was passed into law, has lifted the restriction imposed on CSOs source of finance and the associated status of these organizations as resident or foreign charities.
Freedom Fund, country representative of Ethiopia, Daniel Melese, claimed that compared to previous years they have experienced a smoother and easier way to register their organization in Ethiopia thanks to the new improved CSO law. They plan to contribute to eradicating slavery caused by irregular migration as well as human trafficking. They have gotten their license approved three months ago and state that there seems to be comfortable conditions to work in Ethiopia. Daniel also encourages other international organizations to follow in their footsteps and get a legal license as the new CSO law allows advocacy and foreign funding.
Since the new 2019 CSO law, there has been 239 local and international organizations trying to register their office in Ethiopia and many more who are re-registering under the new CSO law, according to the Agency for Civil Society Organizations. There are different processes for both local and international organizations. For the foreign organizations, they need to submit documents, authentication, and support letter from their countries’ Foreign Minister or Embassy. For local NGOs, there should be a Board of Directors which consists of five to 13 members and a general assembly among other requirements.
The issue of governing CSOs was not much of a pressing issue before the 2005 elections. In Ethiopia, there was no comprehensive legislation governing CSOs for a long time. In fact, civil societies do not have a strong foundation in the country’s history. Previously, the Ethiopian government had accused CSOs and NGOs of political interference, lack of accountability, lack of constituency and dependence on foreign funding, abuse and corruption. These accusations were the justifications provided to the strict law enacted in 2009 as a legislative response. According to a Human Rights Watch report, analyzing the draft in 2008, the intended and actual result of this law would make it nearly impossible for any civil society organization to carry out work the government does not approve of. Roughly about 91 local and international organizations had been closed in 2008 according to one report; however, it is expected to be more. Some organizations based in Ethiopia have been closed by the government due to several reasons. For instance, Buckner Adoption and Maternity Center was closed after it was accused of not following the agency’s rule and some were closed down because they were criticized for not doing any activities. Others were also closed due to not following the finance rules of the agency.
The new amendments of the CSO law came with the political transformations. According to a staff member of the Agency for Civil Society Organizations, compared to the past, it is much easier for organizations to register. The law required CSOs to allocate 70 percent of their budget for operational costs and 30 percent for administrative purposes. The ‘70/30 rule’ was meant to ensure that the CSOs funding benefited those in need and their main goal. According to the previous law, Ethiopian charities and societies were not allowed to raise more than 10 percent of their revenue from foreign sources. Ethiopian resident charities, societies and foreign charities were allowed to receive limited funds from foreign sources, but they were prohibited from carrying out advocacy activities. It used to be limited to 10 percent of funds to come from abroad and now the amount is unlimited. In fact, the new law explicitly provides that all organizations have the right to engage in any lawful activity to accomplish their objectives. Foreign and foreign-funded CSOs are no longer withheld from engaging in advocacy and human rights work. As a matter of fact, the new law encourages CSOs to engage in advocacy and lobbying. The 70/30 rule has now been replaced by an 80/20 rule: meaning that 20 percent of a CSO’s income can be spent on administrative costs and the rest 80 percent is to be sent on achieving the organizations goal.
According to Yared Habtegiorgis, executive director of Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia (AHRE), the new adopted CSO law is a positive outcome of the reform that marked a very significant and important step for the continuation of the work of CSOs and their contribution to the improvement of human rights situation in the country. He said that he appreciated the revising process of the law that was passed after a thorough and inclusive consultation which took into consideration the input of all stakeholders, mainly CSOs, before it was adopted by the House of People’s Representatives. Secondly, the new law was warmly welcomed by CSOs, as it provides more freedom to the work of CSOs. The new law repels some of the major restrictions that the old law contains, like funding restrictions that was imposed on CSOs who work on right based issues, good governance, anti-corruption and conflict resolution.
The new law also raises hope for NGOs in exile to return back. Previously, AHRE was based in Geneva and was exiled, however, due to the new adopted CSO law, it is currently processing to get its license in Addis Ababa.
Yared said that getting a license will give them the opportunity to work freely and to contribute to the improvement of human rights in the country as well as conduct research on the ground instead doing studies from a distance. Nevertheless, there might be some shortcomings related to raising funds, overlapping of project activities if many NGOs registered to do the same activities and some other challenges. He also highlights that most NGOs are genuine, and they work properly but other NGOs might create a problematic atmosphere for genuine CSOs to create a strong national coalition.
Similar to international civil society organizations, local organizations are also having an easier time registering at the federal office. Representative of Tsilal HIV AIDS Positive Organization Adwa Tigray, Letechel said that this is the first time they have registered and that it has been a smooth process to get a license. She stated that lack of money was one of the challenges for them to register. However, the organization has been raising its members up to 100 people and continue to raise their funds. They plan to support people with HIV and raise awareness about it. Primary focus will be given to female awareness, activism and providing assistance.
The Agency for Civil Society Organizations asserts that after local and international offices have registered in Ethiopia, there will be an assigned team who will follow up on them and the organizations will be required to report annually. If the organizations disobey the laws of Ethiopia and the new CSO law, the agency will send an oral warning, written warning and then it will be decided by the board on what to do next.
Contributed by Sesina Hailou