Of the many outreach programs run here by Germany’s Heinrich Böll 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 Böll 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 Böll'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 Ethiopia’s 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.
"Charities like ours are here to work with the government on improving the lives of Ethiopians," he says. "The uncertainty surrounding the law wastes time and prevents us from focusing fully on developing and delivering good programs."
The British government this month however was promised a written assurance that all organizations working on violence against women and issues like female genital mutilation will be allowed to continue.
Stringent budget controls
Another major complaint is that new laws stipulate that only 30 percent of budgets go to administration, interpreted in 2011 to include most travel and training cost. This is proving unworkable. Some 80 percent of groups defaulted on these terms last year.
Of 29 charities funded by US Agency for International Development, 27 can't comply, according to knowledgeable sources.
Nigist Haile, an Ethiopian, runs the Center for African Women's Economic Empowerment (CAWEE) in the capital, Addis Ababa. The aim of the organization funded by Canada's development agency and the United Nations and WTO's International Trade Center is to help female entrepreneurs access international markets.
CAWEE is assisting Hilina Enriched Foods Processing Center develop a marketing strategy to export spicy peanuts to the Middle East by providing consultants. Boosting sales abroad is a crucial objective of a foreign-exchange starved country. Ethiopia's imports cost $7.5 billion more than exports last year.
“I think they are the only one who are working with women very practically," says Deputy General Manager Hilina Belete about CAWEE.
Ms. Nigist also hires consultants to train businesswomen. The law classifies the consultants' fees as an administrative cost, giving CAWEE a "very serious problem" in meeting the 30 percent administration rule. Unless special consideration is granted, sessions will be stopped, Nigist says.
"Again the women are suffering," she says. "We should be considered a development partner, but they are not seeing it that way."
Ethiopia's government has been popular with donors such as the US, EU, and UK partly because it's seen as prioritizing the poor and spending on them effectively. It is also seen as a reliable ally in the unstable Horn of Africa.
Daniel Bekele, director of Human Rights Watch's Africa division, says the agency and laws are not a rejection of international partners for Ethiopia, but about domestic politics and a response to the power shown by civil society groups in previous elections.
"I believe the CSO law was a response to 2005 [elections]," Mr. Bekele says, a time when voter education campaigns led to huge turnouts, civil society monitored polls and mediated disputes. "Unfortunately it was perceived as a political activity … or as a politically-biased activity."
Getachew Reda, a government spokesman says the law is needed to stop corrupt charities "running amok" and using "per diems for vacations in Honolulu."
If training is a "stock in trade" and done in a cost-efficient manner to benefit Ethiopians, then it won't be classed as an administrative cost, he says. But he adds that if charities make it their business to "criss-cross Africa paying all sorts of stipends to employees, then it will be."