Across the globe, the space for Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) to operate is rapidly shrinking. In fact, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, recently lamented that over the past five years at least 40 countries have embraced legislation restricting access to foreign funding and limiting the legitimate activities of CSOs. Similarly, a 2013 report by CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, concludes that many governments are failing to honour their promise to create an “enabling environment” for civil society. Dozens of other countries, under the pretence of safeguarding national security and state sovereignty, have proposed similar laws to unduly temper the influence of independent organizations.
Recently on openGlobalRights, Saskia Brechenmacher and Thomas Carothers noted that while dependence on foreign donors for human rights work is high, many governments are not only restricting but also vilifying domestic CSOs who receive foreign assistance. Indeed, as Melaku Mulualem pointed out, when the Kenyan government attempted to place heavy restrictions on NGO foreign funding, they portrayed local NGOs as “money scavengers” and agents of foreign intervention. As local funds have yet to materialize in significant amounts, these interventions are creating an environment in which many local human rights organizations are simply shutting down. In this shrinking space, James Ron and Archana Pandya argue that human rights NGOs must find different ways to market their work, so that local populations are more inspired to support them. Correspondingly, Okeoma Ibe strongly advocates for local support for local rights, arguing that NGOs throughout the global South must distance themselves from international funding to avoid being hamstrung by external demands. But can local donors actually pick up the slack?
Ethiopia is no exception to these government restrictions and domestic funding challenges. In fact, it has one of the most debilitating laws in the world for civil society operations. The country received nearly $4 billion in development aid from the US and other western countries in 2013, arguably due to its strategic and military importance. However, while relying on international funding to supplement 50-60 percent of its national budget, the government has criminalized most foreign funding for human rights groups. Under the CSO Proclamation, organizations working on a number of human rights issues, including the advancement of democratic rights, rule of law and the promotion of the rights of children and the disabled, can only receive 10 percent of their budget from foreign funding.
Such blanket restrictions have precipitated the near complete cessation of organized human rights activity in the country. While official figures put the number of the registered CSOs at 4000 – a remarkably low figure for a country with a population nearing 100 million – several Ethiopian civil society activists working in the capital contend that no more than three independent human rights organizations actually remain.
Even then, the few organizations that have refused to abandon their human rights activities in exchange for access to international funding have been forced to make crippling cutbacks. In 2010, the Human Rights Council (HRCO), Ethiopia’s first and only remaining human rights monitoring group, closed nine of its twelve offices and cut 85 per cent of its staff. At the same time, Ethiopia’s most prominent women’s rights group, the Ethiopian Women’s Lawyers Association (EWLA), was forced to cut 70 per cent of its staff.
International human rights organizations are further barred from working in Ethiopia under the CSO Proclamation. Representatives of the global human rights group Amnesty International were summarily expelled from the country last year despite having a secured a business visa. In addition, representatives of other international human rights organizations have reported being denied entry upon arrival.
In response to growing international criticism of the law, the Ethiopian government, seemingly unconcerned by the glaring hypocrisy of its dependence on international assistance while criminalizing the same for human rights organizations, has exhorted CSOs to seek greater domestic support to fund their operations. However, severe limitations found in the CSO Proclamation on domestic resource mobilization, as well as a strong contagion of fear about supporting activist causes, have proved insurmountable hurdles to financial “self-sufficiency.”
For example, Ethiopian CSOs must secure explicit authorization from the Charities and Societies Agency – the government authority tasked with overseeing implementation of the CSO Proclamation – to organize a domestic fundraising event. Independent organizations that manage to traverse the labyrinth of bureaucracy erected by the Agency are regularly subjected to discriminatory application of the law. In 2013, the Agency forced the Human Rights Council (HRCO) to cancel a number of proposed fundraising events due to repeated delays and outright rejected other applications.
The law further stipulates that CSOs submit detailed information of all benefactors and members to the Agency. In a country that has the dubious distinction of having the second highest number of imprisoned journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, and that regularly detains opposition party members and human rights defenders, such requirements have become a strong deterrent to securing financial support from Ethiopia’s growing middle class. The Human Rights Council (HRCO) has reported a swift decline in membership following the introduction of the CSO Proclamation while a number of independent development groups have observed a growing reticence among small business owners to openly support their work.
In addition, as Osai Ojigho has noted, the African continent in general has little history of donating to social justice NGOs, and African philanthropists usually prefer to donate to projects with tangible results like schools and hospitals. These issues in combination with restrictive laws and a hostile environment make the generation of local funds extremely difficult.
While considerable attention has been paid to the debilitating effects of the CSO Proclamation on human rights groups, development organizations permitted to receive foreign funding have not been spared from the government’s campaign to silence all independent monitoring and reporting of its policies. A number of independent development organizations that do not have explicit human rights mandates have reported severe obstruction by the government, including instructions to cease any form advocacy or policy analysis and focus exclusively on service delivery activities. Such restrictions have left the country increasingly bereft of any independent assessment of its development prerogatives and have further undermined Ethiopia’s ability to ensure equitable and sustainable development for the entire population.
The drastic contraction of human rights activity in Ethiopia precipitated by the 2009 CSO Proclamation is a stark reminder of the severe democratic backsliding hastened by restrictive NGO laws. While having local funds for local projects is ideal, this solution is highly unlikely in the Ethiopian context. If the government itself cannot function without international funds, it cannot possibly expect civil society to do so, and that is exactly the point. As the international community, including the UN Human Rights Council, which just organized its first ever formal discussion on civil society space, debates rising restrictions on civil society across the world, it is now especially crucial to underscore the duplicity of states that receive significant amounts of foreign aid while simultaneously denying CSOs the same privilege.