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Misrepresenting the CSO legislation and Tarnishing Ethiopia's image

By Hassan Adem
Tigrai Onlne - March 25, 2014

The neo-liberal forces and their local followers never miss a chance to tarnish the image of Ethiopia and the directions taken to advance the socio-economic stride. Lately, these forces lined up to impede the government's effort to take another major step to transform the mining sector by seeking admission to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). EITI is a global coalition of governments, companies and civil society working together to improve openness and accountable management of revenues from natural resources.

The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative is a global initiative launched by the then PM of U.K. Mr. Tony Blair in 2002. It is an International multi-stakeholders initiative of governments, companies and civil society working to strengthen governance by improving transparency and accountability in the extractive sector.  EITI  involves  a  process  by  which  the  payments  made  by  companies  and  revenues  received by governments are published in independently verified reports. The process is overseen and governed by a multi-stakeholders working group represented from government, civil society organizations and extractive companies.

Implementing EITI will help countries to efficiently collect the revenue generated from the extractive industry, supports anti-corruption and good governance agendas of countries and establish citizen trust in public institutions and extractive companies. Citizens would be able to hold government accountable  in  the  use  of  revenues  collected  from  the  extractive  companies.  A transparent system will bring conducive investment climate and attract more direct foreign investment.

To the chagrin of the neo-liberal forces, EITI decided to admit Ethiopia on March 19. The decision infuriated Human Rights Watch, which have been lobbing against the admission, that it issued a statement claiming: "With this move, the EITI may have added a member, but it lost its credibility as a good governance initiative".

Ethiopia's application for membership was accepted because Ethiopia met the criterion for membership in the group. One of those criterions is that: A member shall commit to meaningful participation for civil society on issues related to natural resources. EITI's Standard instructs that, “government must ensure there are no obstacles to civil society and company participation in the process,” including with regard to “relevant laws, regulations, and administrative rules as well as actual practice in implementation of the EITI.”

However, Human Rights Watch has a different view. It position is based on none but the CSO legislation. Human Rights Watch's dep. director argued that Ethiopia's law "prohibits nongovernmental organizations from working in human rights and good governance if they receive more than 10 percent of their funds from abroad. As a result, today there are few organizations working on these issues and those that do, self-censor and straddle a knife-edge, always concerned about a potential crackdown."

However, this is a gross misrepresentation of the reality. To begin with the 2009 Proclamation of Charities and Societies of Ethiopia was not intended to stifle rather to encourage and broader civil society activities.

Charities and Societies, and national and international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have been operating in Ethiopia for a long time. The laws governing their registration and operations were first drawn up in the early 1950s and were based on the 1952 Ethiopian Civil Code and Regulation 321/1959.  However, those legal frameworks have become outdated that they reached to a point where they can no longer provide a workable environment, not least due to the many legislative and other changes that had taken place in Ethiopia and elsewhere. They were certainly incapable of ensuring the maximum benefits for the country from NGO activities.

Indeed, some Charities and Societies repeatedly requested the Government for more up-to-date regulations to enable them to carry out their operations smoothly, and put an end to unclear procedures and bureaucratic hindrances. Another significant factor that needed to be taken into account was that, after the demise of the former military regime and the introduction of a democratic federal government allowing for full freedom of association in the country, the number of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) dramatically increased and their areas of activity multiplied.

The government therefore issued a new Proclamation of Charities and Societies in 2009 in order to facilitate and strengthen the effective contributions of NGOs to the socio-economic development of the country. The Proclamation made the necessary amendments to reflect new realities and incorporate the best practices from the similar regulations of other nations. There were also extensive public discussions during the drafting process with all NGOs operating in the country and with other stakeholders.

The newly enacted Proclamation No.621/2009 for the registration of Charities and Societies came into force on February 13th 2009, and on November 9th 2009, the Council of Ministers also issued Regulation No.168/2009 to ensure its implementation in a transparent manner.

The Proclamation had two main objectives. One of these was to ensure the realization of citizens’ rights to association as enshrined in the Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, and secondly to support and facilitate the role of Charities and Societies, and of NGOs, in the overall development of Ethiopian peoples.

In sum, the legislation is designed to create an enabling environment for citizens to exercise their right to organise, engender the prevalence of accountability and transparency, and enable the civil society community to become government partners in enhancing development and democratization processes. It is indubitable that these rationales and policy objectives are valid, and for the same reasons, the existing old legislations need to be changed.

Besides the good intentions, the drafting process was highly participatory. It involved the civil society community thorough discussions of the draft proclamation. There had been a series of discussions held among the civil society community and between civil society and the government concerning the draft legislations prepared by the FDRE’s Ministry of Justice. Moreover, there were forums in which CSOs and NGOs had an opportunity to make thorough discussions among themselves as well as with government representatives and other stakeholders. Before and after the draft proclamation was referred to the Council of Ministers, the civil society had been given sufficient time to launch a series of discussions among themselves and forward recommendations. Last but not least, the Prime Minister himself invited all CSOs and NGOs to his office for a discussion on the draft legislation.  

As a result, the final legislation delivered several important developments that brought positive developments to CSO activities. Among those:

a) The drafting of a separate legislation focusing on NGOs/CSOs by itself was an important development: As indicated earlier, despite general provisions for charities and associations, the previous legislation does not create an enabling environment for their operations because it was not formulated in such a way as to accommodate the diversity of civil society institutions, their operations, and unique characteristics. The government’s initiative to address these gaps was both timely and eagerly anticipated.

b) The incorporation of specific provisions for different types of NGOs/CSOs: The legislation has specific provisions about charities and societies, which didn't exist in the old legislation. Moreover, the charitable purposes enumerated under sub-Article 16(3) fairly reflect the current status of the organizations and cover to a large extent the spheres of engagement of the NGOs and CSOs in Ethiopia.

c) The provision for the establishment of consortium of charities or societies: One of the difficulties encountered under the previous legislation is the lack of a provision for the legal status of CSO/NGO consortia. In this regard, the draft legislation’s provision in sub-Article 6(1) for the establishment of such a consortium is one of its main strengths.

d) Allowing charities and societies to engage in income generating activities: This is an important component of the legislation because it helps charities and societies to strengthen their internal capacity and ensure the sustainability of their activities.

e) Exemption from income tax for charities: This is another important step that was not available under the old legislation and that strengthens the civil society's capacity to provide service to the public and enhances their financial capacity.

f) The establishment of the Charities and Societies Agency: Another positive feature of the new legislation is the establishment of an Agency to undertake the registration and supervision of civil society organizations and a council to handle issues related to charities and societies. The Charities and Societies Agency was established under the Proclamation as an autonomous administrative body to handle the registration of Charities, Societies and NGOs properly and assist them to achieve their goals with transparency and accountability.

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The Charities and Societies Agency has been given the powers and functions to: To license, register, and supervise Charities and Societies; To encourage Charities and Societies to have better administration; To collect, analyze and disseminate information relevant to its powers and functions; To publish and distribute information about the registration of Charities and Societies in the newspapers; To organize consultative fora for governmental organs and Charities and Societies; To make proposals to Ministers on matters relating to meeting its objectives; To take decisions, in cooperation with the concerned sector administrator, on the application of Charities and Societies for registration and license; To exercise the powers of registration and authentication of documents with regard to Charitable Endowments and Charitable Trusts; To collect fees for the service it renders in accordance with rates to be approved by Government; To own property and enter into contracts in its own name; To delegate, when necessary, the powers and functions given to it by this Proclamation; and To carry out any such other activities necessary for the attainment of its objectives.

However, some choose to ignore all these developments and are hell-bent on tarnishing this important legal document based on one of its aspects. That is; the provisions of the legislation regarding the nationality of NGO/CSO institutions.

Indeed, the legislation specifies the limitations to the operations of Foreign Charities and Societies. These foreign charities and societies are not allowed to engage in domestic Ethiopian political activities as of right. This is normal practice in most countries, as political activities, by their very nature, are reserved for citizens. It is a sovereign state’s right to limit the influence of foreigners through any financing of political activities. Aside from politics, foreign charities and societies are free to operate and assist in any much-needed development activities and humanitarian needs of the country. It might be underlined that the Proclamation does not exclude the possibility of foreign Non-governmental organizations operating in Ethiopia to contribute constructively in activities otherwise totally reserved for local NGOs in accordance with Article 3 Sub-article 2(b) However this must be done through agreement with the Government of Ethiopia and also include regular evaluations.

In this regard, it might help to take a look at the distinctions set by the legislation with regard to Ethiopian associations and the Foreigners.

Sectors open for Foreign Charities and Societies and NGOs include, among others: a) The prevention, alleviation or relief of poverty or disaster; b) The advancement of the economy and social development and environmental protection or improvement;  c) The advancement of animal welfare; d) The advancement of education; e) The advancement of health or the saving of lives; f) The advancement of art, culture, heritage or science;  g) The advancement of amateur sport and the welfare of youth; h) The relief for those in need by reason of age, disability, financial hardship, i) The advancement of capacity building on the basis of the country’s long term development directions.

Whereas, Activities reserved to Ethiopian Charities and Societies and NGOs, are: The advancement of human and democratic rights; The promotion of equality of nations, nationalities and peoples, as well as the promotion of equality of gender and religion; The promotion of the right of the disabled and of children; The promotion of conflict resolution or reconciliation; and The promotion of improving the efficiency of the justice and law enforcement services.

Therefore, for any objective observer it is nothing but appropriate that political related matters are reserved for Ethiopian CSOs and NGOs, while there is plenty room left for any genuine foreign or foreign-funded organization to contribute in developmental areas.

In Conclusion:

Overall there's no doubt this legislation have helped to advance clarity and predictability in the operations of all charities and societies and NGOs in Ethiopia. It has also significantly improved arrangements for the licensing, registration and operations of these organizations in the country.

During the more than half a century from the 1950s to 2009; the total number of registered Non-Governmental Organizations registered to operate in Ethiopia in various areas were less than 3800.  However, since the enactment of the new legislation and the establishment the new Charities and Societies Agency in 2009, more than 2000 national and international Non-governmental organizations have been registered. The difference is very easy to observe. It is also worth mentioning that the average registration rate for NGOs was 76 per year for the period from 1950s to 2009. However, only in the first three years since the Proclamation, the average annual figure has tripled. If the future rate of registration follows the same trend in the future, the number of NGOs operating in Ethiopia will certainly show a substantial increase.

It is indeed quite clear that the new Proclamation, in addition to its impact on speeding up the processes of registration and encouraging new NGOs to register is also providing a legal and conducive working environment for Non-governmental organizations encouraging and allowing them to discharge their duties in a responsible and transparent manner.

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