26. June 2019 | EDP Wire | Jalale Getachew Birru, Jonas Wolff

Negotiating international civil society support: the case of Ethiopia’s 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation

This EDP Wire contribution briefly summarizes the fifth article Negotiating international civil society support: the case of Ethiopia’s 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation” of the recent Democratization special issue “The negotiation of democracy promotion. Issues, parameters and consequences“, edited by EDP network members Annika E. Poppe, Julia Leininger and Jonas Wolff. With the help of the generous support of the Leibniz Association, the entire special issue “The negotiation of democracy promotion: Issues, parameters and consequences” is available online as open access. The summary was prepared by Niklas Markert.

Since 2005, international civil society support has faced increasing resistance around the world. Until recently, Ethiopia was widely recognized as a key example of this so-called Closing Space phenomenon. With the 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation No. 621/2009 (CSP), Ethiopia established strict regulations on civil society organizations that, in particular, restricted the ability of local associations to make use of foreign funding and the range of activities allowed for foreign (funded) organizations. While this NGO law was recently replaced by a much less restrictive law, the paper at hand traces the process of international negotiations that has accompanied the drafting of the CSP and identifies the consequences of these negotiations for international civil society support in the country. Focusing on the interaction between foreign “donors” and the Ethiopian government, the authors analyze

(a) what precisely these negotiations have been about,

(b) to what extent these negotiations have actually influenced the content of the CSP, and

(c) how the CSP as finally adopted has actually affected international civil society support in Ethiopia.

In doing so, the paper investigates the following questions: How do “donor” governments that engage in civil society support try to convince “recipient” governments to renounce or temper planned restrictions? How do recipient governments respond? And what are the dynamics and the consequences of such intergovernmental communication?

Negotiating the Charities and Societies Proclamation: Issues and Results

Birru and Wolff reconstruct the process of negotiations based on US embassy reports which have been published by Wikileaks. As the article focuses on the discussions between the Ethiopian authorities and international donors, the four in-depth meetings of the ambassadors from the US (Donald Yamamoto), the UK (Norman Ling) and France (Stephane Gompertz) with Ethiopian PM Meles Zenawi are at the center of the analysis. The analysis reveals a process of intergovernmental negotiations that simultaneously deals with quite different issues. First, there is the explicit and concrete discussion on the planned NGO law. Referring to the provisions in the planned legislation (policy formulation) and to what these might mean in actual practice (implementation), the donor governments raise general concerns and propose specific changes, while the Ethiopian side responds with justifications, reassurances and concessions. These discussions are, second, embedded in a more general debate on the appropriate role and regulation of NGOs in Ethiopia (problem definition) as well as on the norms and basic values that underpin the domestic regulation or the international support of civil society organizations (normative premises). The latter type of discussion also touches upon fundamental disagreements that concern different notions of democracy underlying the diverging viewpoints.

According to the analysis, the impact of these negotiations on the content of the CSP has been quite limited, but this does not mean that they have been unimportant. In fact, Birru and Wolff argue, the purpose of the negotiations was not so much to reach an agreement on the CSP which both sides, from the outset, considered to be an unattainable aim anyway. The shared – if implicit – aim was rather an informal, de facto agreement that would allow for an uninterrupted continuation of bilateral relations despite the obvious and persisting differences over the substantial issue at hand. This underlying logic of the negotiation is clearly reflected in their consequences for international civil society support. As a result of the negotiations, the CSP was approved in a slightly modified version. The law remained very restrictive which, according to Birru and Wolff, reflects the weak bargaining position of external actors that were not willing to risk cooperative relations with an important regional ally. But, at least, it opened up certain possibilities for local NGOs and international donors to adapt, most notably by allowing for development-related activities which, in previous draft versions of the CSP, had been on the list of restricted purposes.

At the discursive level, the normative position of the Ethiopian authorities that consistently emphasized ownership and the need to construct its own version of democracy was mostly accepted by the donor governments. The latter rather made the empirical argument that the Ethiopian government’s strategy was, in fact, aimed at repressing dissent. This claim was easily rejected by the Ethiopian side, which could present an empirical counter-narrative, highlighting the risks to societal peace and political stability as posed by opposition-aligned CSOs. This finding, the authors point out, suggests an interesting version of the general tendency of negotiations to level the playing field. Given the normative structure of intergovernmental relations, which both sides present as a horizontal partnership, the party that aims at interfering in the internal affairs of the other tends to be on the defensive (on this finding, also see the introduction to the Special Issue).

Implementing the Charities and Societies Proclamation: the consequences for civil society

Due to the dependence of almost all local NGOs on foreign funding and the fact that, prior to 2009, a broad range of organizations conducted projects in the broad area of democracy, governance and human rights that the 2009 CSP prohibited for foreign-funded organizations, Ethiopia’s NGO sector changed dramatically. A comparison of the situation before (2009) and after (2011) the implementation of the CSP shows that 574 out of 2,275 local NGOs failed to re-register, while those that succeeded overwhelmingly (1,330 out of 1,701) did so by registering as “Ethiopian resident” organizations. “Ethiopian Resident” organizations, as well as “Foreign” organizations, compared to “Ethiopian” organizations, are prohibited from participating in a range of activities, including the promotion of human and democratic rights, etc. In order to continue receiving foreign funding, many NGOs had to adjust or rebrand their activities. According to one estimate, only 12 or 13 of the 125 previously existing local rights groups survived the implementation of the CSP.

Still, the consequences of the CSP have been selective. In fact, between 2008 and 2014, while CSOs working on rights issues suffered setbacks and decline, those organizations engaged in development activities and service delivery experienced growth. Furthermore, the CSP has had little noticeable effect on the broad range of CSOs outside the sector of national-level NGOs, that is, for most community-based organizations operating at the local level, for organizations registered and working in one region, and for membership-based organizations. However, on the whole, the CSP has had significant negative effects on Ethiopian civil society organizations.

On the other side, though, its effects on international civil society support in the country have been rather limited. Donors were mostly able to either unilaterally or in cooperation with the Ethiopian government adjust existing civil society programs, bringing them in line with, or exempting them from, the CSP. Their number in Ethiopia dropped only marginally from 266 (2009) to 202 (2011). Furthermore, donors and the Ethiopian government made “a special arrangement” with two of three major civil society funds through which an increasing part of international civil society support was channeled. This arrangement shows that donors have been able to negotiate some limited space for governance- and rights oriented civil society support. Yet, the arrangement also granted a veto position to the Ethiopian government which is directly involved in the steering committees.


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