Ethiopia Makes Help Difficult for World Donors Advocating Civil Society, Rights

By Davison, William | The Christian Science Monitor, February 28, 2013 | Go to article overview

Ethiopia Makes Help Difficult for World Donors Advocating Civil Society, Rights


Davison, William, The Christian Science Monitor


Of the many outreach programs run here by Germanys Heinrich Bll Foundation, one caused special alarm for an official new Ethiopian agency that is starting to block and restrict the promotion of civil society ideas.

The Bll program, SurVivArt: Art for the Right to a Good Life, dealt with notions of healthy, intelligent, and successful living, and illustrated differing concepts of home, food, and choice consumer goods all done through sculpture and video arts.

To a Western-oriented eye, it seemed harmless.

But officials at the Charities and Societies Agency fairly flipped when they saw a word implying rights in the program title.

"'Why has this got right in it?' they asked," remembers Patrick Berg, the foundation's former Ethiopia director, who just returned to Germany after deciding that the agency and its zealous application of a restrictive new law made meaningful work impossible.

For years, Heinrich Bll's activities included training regional parliamentarians, running a forum to discuss gender issues, and organizing a model African Union for students. But no more.

The new law, adopted several years ago but only now being enforced, bars charities that receive more than 10 percent of overseas funds from engaging in the promotion of a panoply of human rights ideas, including for children and disabled, for democratic education, and for other staples of civil society.

First we were forced to abandon rights-based work, now even art has become suspicious," says Mr. Berg of the law, called the "Charities and Societies Proclamation," or CSO law.

Foreign charities and NGOs in Ethiopia are all currently undergoing an annual audit to weed out funding and ideas that break the law.

The law is a legacy of the late prime minister Meles Zenawi who wanted to curb foreign groups unaccountably advocating their own values in sensitive areas. The Ethiopian leader of 21 years, who died in August, said that Western societies evolved without external meddling, and so should Ethiopia.

But critics, while commending Ethiopia's desire to be independent, say in fact the law is being used as a political sledgehammer to thwart and crush dissent. Amnesty International argued in 2009 the law was hostile to freedom of expression and association and was harmful to Ethiopias fledgling civil society.

One of world's poorest nations

Some NGOs and donors say the zeal of the new agency threatens to drive off assistance that likely helps the nation and, more particularly, vulnerable people. (The Monitor also reported today on Egyptian government efforts to clamp down on foreign-funding of NGOs.)

Some one-third of Ethiopia's 90 million people live on under $1.25 a day, making it one of the world's poorest nations and one of the top aid recipients. It received $3.6 billion in 2011 from donors, over 11 percent of national income, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Part of the complaint against the new official restrictions are that they are applied willy nilly and are confusing. Many NGOs use rights as a standpoint of civil society virtue, such as a right to education, or clean water.

But one executive in a NGO that wished not to be named said the agency told his outfit not to promote the rights of girls and women not to be circumcised or forced into marriage but that advocating for other rights seemed acceptable. …

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