The question of whether international development programmes should aim to strengthen civil society is a tricky one to answer in Ethiopia. Organisations are allowed to engage in civil society strengthening activities as long as they raise the funds for their organisations from domestic sources. This limits the ability of foreign governments to influence these policy spheres. After all, what sovereign country wants to have foreign values imposed on it? The flipside is that if civil society is ignored by the government, no local efforts to strengthen it may take place at all, and civil society may decay.
Another important issue regarding development programmes is whether non-governmental organisations should be compelled to limit the percentage of their budgets spent on administrative costs. Limiting administrative expenditures means that Ngos cannot fill their offices with redundant staff being paid good salaries. But what constitutes administration? Is the cost of a teacher conducting a workshop on learner-centred pedagogy considered administrative? Interpreting ‘administrative’ to mean anything that is not tangible has the potential to limit efforts to improve Ethiopian civil society.
The second phase of the CAFOD/SCIAF/TROCAIRE Joint Ethiopia Office (CST–JEP) Civil Society Programme was initiated in October 2009, and targeted ten Civil Society Organisations. The goal of the programme was to promote the effective representation of Ethiopian citizens through active participation and engagement in civil society networks. In turn, the programme aimed to facilitate dialogue with government in formulating policy. CST-JEP intended to achieve this by building capacity within the ten partner organizations. This three year programme was aimed at institutionalising accountability and transparency in the ten targeted organisations, promoting linkages among them, harmonising and coordinating their national and regional networks, and developing constructive and sustainable relations with government.
One of the major challenges of governance in Ethiopia is achieving downward accountability, with authorities and institutions held accountable to citizens and communities, rather than simply towing the party line. Institutionalised downward accountability will ensure a more effective and transparent local government that is responsive to citizens. Civil society organizations should be catalysts in empowering communities and proactively engaging all levels of government. The cumulative effect of this will be a more inclusive, participatory and sustainable development process. Yet Civil Society Organisations have difficulty making progress in their efforts on this front due to a relatively recent governmental proclamation which has altered the regulatory environment in which they operate.
The Charities and Societies Proclamation (CSP) enacted by the Government of Ethiopia in early 2009 has created a fundamental change in the legal and institutional setup for operating Civil Society Organisations, by classifying them into categories based on their source of funding, and by limiting their activities based on those funding sources. The goal of the proclamation is to limit the influence of foreign-funded agencies and to empower locally-funded ones. The proclamation established the Charities and Societies Agency (ChSA) and granted the institution wide-ranging discretionary powers governing the activities of Civil Society Organisations. Uncertainty surrounding the status of foreign-funded institutions has been compounded as regional governments work to adapt their regulatory policies to match the demands of the CSP.
Foreign assistance in fields such as drought recovery and sustainable livelihoods are welcome, but Article 2 of the Proclamation has identified several “no-go areas” for organisations that receive more than 10% of their funding from foreign sources. The list of prohibited areas includes a broad range of issues: human rights, justice and women’s rights. For Civil Society Organisations to engage in activities related to these areas, they need to register as an Ethiopian Society or Charity, and raise at least 90% of their operating budget from Ethiopian sources. This entrenches the sovereignty of the Ethiopian government in formulating policy within these areas. It also means that Civil Society Organisations registered with the Charities and Societies Agency that receive more than 10% of their budget from international sources are barred from engaging in activities promoting human rights, justice, and women’s rights.
Facilitating trust building and positively communicating with all levels of government are the keys to strengthening Ethiopian civil society. Civil Society Organisations need to cultivate constructive engagement with the government and learn how to creatively link advocacy and policy dialogue with service delivery interventions implemented at the local level. The support should focus on internal governance; constituency building; local fund raising and income generation; evidence-based research; and practical skills on lobbying and policy dialogue. Only this way can long–term sustainability be ensured and Ethiopian civil society’s dependency on foreign funding be reduced.
- Charity praises drought response (bbc.co.uk)