The research programme ‘New roles of CSOs for inclusive development’ investigates the assumptions, solutions and problems underlying the civil society policy framework ‘Dialogue & Dissent’ of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Currently, all the research groups are conducting the empirical part of their research. The ‘Assumptions blog’ provides insight into the fieldwork of the research groups – the researchers share their on-the-ground experiences through this blog. This time, Dr Nicky Broeckhoven and Dr Dina Townsend from Tilburg University, part of the research group ‘CSO’s in sustainable development in Ethiopia’, share their experiences and observations from the Ethiopia.
In 2009, the Ethiopian government adopted a new proclamation governing the civil society sector, the Charities and Societies Proclamation. At the heart of this law is a system of categorization of civil society organisations (CSOs) based on their sources of funding and the nationality of their members. The law creates three groups: the first group includes Ethiopian charities and societies that are locally registered, controlled by Ethiopians and receive no more than 10% of their funding from foreign sources. The second group, Ethiopian resident charities and societies, consists of organisations registered in Ethiopia, whose members all reside in Ethiopia, but who receive more than 10% of their funding from abroad. The last group, foreign charities, consists of organisations registered in another country and controlled by foreign nationals that receive their funding from foreign sources. Under this law, only organisations falling into the first group, Ethiopian charities and societies, can engage in work related to human rights and democracy, and only these organisations can work on policy advocacy and lobbying. Organisations falling into the other two groups are primarily limited to service-oriented activities.
This regulatory regime has received worldwide attention and has been heavily criticized for closing down the political space for CSOs in Ethiopia. For the most part, attention has been focused on the impact of the law on foreign and foreign-funded organisations (groups 2 and 3). Less attention has been paid to the impacts of the law on Ethiopian charities and societies (group 1).
Over the past few months, we have conducted a series of interviews with organisations working on and in Ethiopia, in all three groups. What this research seems to suggest is that the impact of the Charities and Societies Proclamation on local Ethiopian organisations (group 1) has been severe, but largely overlooked in current debates in both academic and political fora. While Ethiopian charities and societies can engage in political and human rights work, their ability to do so is radically constrained by their limited access to funding and excessive administrative and reporting obligations. These organisations struggle to raise local funds in a country plagued by poverty and in a political environment that has long viewed CSOs as suspect and as self-serving. Those with the capacity to fund local organisations are reluctant to do so, either because they do not want to be associated with a sector historically viewed as hostile by the government or because they feel that these organisations lack legitimacy and effectiveness.
This lack of funding and local support means that many Ethiopian charities and societies face high staff turnover and have been forced to radically downscale their activities, including reducing the scope of their work and the areas in which they work. Many organisations working on environmental and development issues in remote and rural areas have been forced to shut down their regional offices. In one case, an organization informed us that it had to stop its programme on food security, and now focused only on single groups and rights issues, sacrificing the holistic, multi-faceted approach they had previously adopted and shifting their focus away from sustainable development priorities.
Ethiopia is in a moment of extraordinary political change. It is a moment that was almost unimaginable as recently as February this year when the government imposed yet another state of emergency in response to protests in the Oromia region. Over the past few months, under the leadership of the new Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia has taken huge strides towards greater political liberalization, releasing political prisoners and welcoming back the exiled political opposition. Prime Minister Ahmed has made it clear that revising the regulation of CSOs is a priority on his list of reforms. A working committee, consisting of various stakeholders, has already been formed to propose reforms in relation to a range of controversial issues, including the Charities and Societies Proclamation. For many working in the civil society sector, this is a time of great hope and excitement.
Many of the CSO employees interviewed, however, see an ongoing need for foreign funders and organisations to be closely and carefully regulated, even if they consider the current regulation to be excessive. They believe that legitimate concerns remain about foreign funding, donor agendas and the potential for foreign influence in policy making through CSOs. Even if the new regulatory regime allows Ethiopian organisations to attract a greater degree of funding from foreign sources, many issues remain. For example, it is possible that greater foreign funding may do more to harm the reputation of local CSOs in an already hostile social environment. Many organisations are working hard to establish their legitimacy with both local communities and local government authorities, and it is far from clear that an injection of foreign-sourced funding will improve those relationships. What is more, foreign-funded projects in the sustainability sector often fail to understand the unique and complex social and environmental context in Ethiopia, resulting in projects that risk doing more harm than good.
This raises an important question: What role could, or should, foreign funders play in supporting and assisting Ethiopian charities and societies, if any?
Our initial findings suggest that Ethiopian charities and societies need support in a number of ways, including in research, networking, training and awareness-raising about their work and its impacts. This is particularly important for those organisations working on environmental and sustainability matters, who may need greater scientific input or help communicating with farmers and communities in difficult to reach areas. This is work that can be done without directly funding these organisations and need not wait for regulatory change. Importantly, more efforts are needed to create and support sources of local funding, regardless of any changes that may come to the regulatory regime.
Thus, our empirical research so far suggests that understanding the social environment in which CSOs operate is very important. In the next phase of our research, we hope to extend our understanding of this environment by interviewing a range of social actors, including community-based organisations, church organisations, private sector actors, regulatory bodies and tertiary institutions.