Is a proposed law to regulate charities in Ethiopia an attempt to regulate a sprawling sector and block foreign political interference or a clampdown on civil society?
A draft proclamation published and revised several times this year has been criticised by African and international rights groups. Ethiopian civil society groups allege some provisions are unconstitutional.
Critics argue the proposed rules, especially on foreign funding of Ethiopian NGOs, will deliberately stifle local human rights groups critical of the government and could disrupt aid operations implemented by local groups.
The government disagrees. Said Meles Tilahun, a whip in parliament: “The law is needed to create a conducive environment for NGOs and CSOs [civil society organisations] and provide a separate legal framework for them. It does not mean to shut them down.”
The government has, however, commented that the charity sector has been used by “political activists” who are working on “other issues”, not “catastrophes that required aid and assistance”, according to a communiqué released in September 2008.
The law, the Proclamation for the Registration and Regulation of Charities and Societies, has been passed by Ethiopia’s Council of Ministers but has not yet been presented to parliament, where pro-government MPs command an overwhelming majority. A hearing is expected on 24 and 25 December.
A donor official confirmed: “There is currently no standard operating procedure for CSOs to work in Ethiopia and having a common set of rules and regulations is a good thing.”
But attempts to revise the law seem to be running out of time. “We’ve been lobbying to get the bill changed before it is enacted but we’ve almost come to the end of the road,” said the head of an international NGO in Addis Ababa, who asked not to be named.
The (draft) law
The law establishes an oversight agency, rules and supervision for the establishment of trusts and endowments, societies and charities. Rules governing fund-raising, membership and governance are detailed. Strong powers to investigate and oversee CSOs and tough penalties are set out.
Most controversially, the law restricts activity in human and democratic rights, gender or ethnic equality, conflict resolution, the strengthening of judicial practices or law enforcement. Only Ethiopian charities or societies having no more than 10 percent of their spending from “foreign sources” would be able to work in those areas.
However, several categories of organisation are exempted, according to a copy of the draft law on the NGO consortium Christian Relief and Development Association (CRDA) website:
“Religious organisations, international or foreign organisations operating in Ethiopia by virtue of an agreement with the government of Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia; ‘Edir’, ‘Ekub’ [traditional cooperative schemes] and other similar cultural or religious associations; and societies governed by other laws.”
The impact on international NGOs with government agreements may therefore be limited.
In November, a CRDA task force welcomed the concept of a legal framework for CSOs, but set out a number of objections to the draft: the definitions of charities and permitted activities; the lack of a right to judicial review or appeal and the requirement that CSOs must have branches in five regions; “discriminatory selection and privileging of mass-based organisations”; lack of recognition for self-regulation by the sector; a 30 percent restriction on administrative costs; too many board members nominated by the government; charities not exempt from taxes and duty; and requirement to register with the authorities within one year of the bill taking effect.
The CRDA-sponsored report also argues that the foreign funding provisions restrict the participation of the Ethiopian diaspora and the constitutional freedom of assembly.
The CRDA commentary is only one of several critiques published by Ethiopian civil society, including prominent groups such as the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, which is frequently critical of the government and heavily dependent on foreign funding.
The US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) alleged the law represented “a complex web of arbitrary restrictions on the work civil society groups can engage in, onerous bureaucratic hurdles, draconian criminal penalties, and intrusive powers of surveillance” and urged parliament to reject the bill.
Amnesty International, the development committee of the European Parliament, and the civil society lobby group CIVICUS, also criticised the law, as did the US government.
“I am not aware of an NGO law elsewhere that is more restrictive,”
said Chris Albim-Lackay, senior researcher in HRW’s Africa division. “It will render the activities of most international and local human rights organisations Illegal.”
However, despite reservations, many NGOs and donors agreed that regulation was needed.
But ultimately the law could end up weakening Ethiopian civil society, some argue.
“Everyone respects sovereignty. But it depends what you define as national interest. We think it’s healthy that people complain about the government and provoke citizens to complain because it leads to better outcomes for societies as a whole,” the NGO representative said.
Other NGO laws :- Zimbabwe, Russia, UK…
Ethiopia is not alone in coming under fire for its NGO law. In 2004, Zimbabwe passed a law banning domestic groups working on human rights and governance from receiving foreign funding, including Zimbabweans abroad. The law set up a government oversight mechanism that the US Bureau of Public Affairs called “highly intrusive and subject to political manipulation”.
Russia’s 2006 NGO law means the government can decline to register branches of foreign organisations where their “goals and objectives create a threat to the sovereignty, political independence, territorial integrity, national unity, unique character, cultural heritage and national interests of the Russian Federation”.
And in the countries hosting western critics, there are restrictions too. In the UK, foreign NGOs must register under one of six categories: prevention or relief of poverty; advancement of education, religion; health or saving lives; citizenship and community development; human rights; conflict resolution or reconciliation, and can lobby for political or legal change only if it would further one of these goals.
The Ethiopian government has mentioned US law in its defence. In the USA, tax-exempt NGOs can lobby but “may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of their activities and may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates”. However, “social welfare” tax-exempt organisations are not limited in this way.
Ethiopia receives more than US$1 billion of humanitarian and development aid every year, and reports indicate some 3,300 NGOs operate around the country.
“A significant number of programmes under the new law could be prohibited,” a donor official indicated, referring to those focussing on strengthening the judicial system, conflict resolution, and democracy and governance. “If the law is implemented in black and white, some non-profits might have no future,” an NGO head said.
International NGOs are concerned about the status of local non-profits that play a major role in implementing projects (and might fall foul of the 10 percent rule) and the “rights-based” discourse and advocacy element in NGO work. Some argue that over the past two decades NGO work has inevitably become more “political”. Others have been reassured they will not have to leave or curtail their “classic humanitarian” operations and advocacy relating to food, health, education and water and sanitation.
“While regulation is needed, the law could have a ‘chilling’ effect on aid operations in Ethiopia, by creating an atmosphere of fear, distrust and potentially weakening innovation. That is where the law is quite threatening,” a donor representative insisted.
Advocacy may have paid off in small ways.
There have been some improvements to the latest draft bill, issued in December, according to Catherine Shea, programme director with the US Center for Not-for-Profit Law, with the punishment of a prison sentence dropped for unregistered NGOs.
However, employees of charities that fail to keep proper accounts, or whose administration costs exceed 30 percent of overall programming costs, can still be imprisoned.
One aid official said the restrictions followed apparent meddling by NGOs after the 2005 elections – the move is designed to ensure outsiders do not interfere in 2010 elections.
The government’s September commentary pointedly objected to aid operations being used by “political actors… which can sway votes in national elections”.