CSOs: From Policy to Operational Challenges

In the good old days, Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) in Ethiopia played a significant role, at least when natural and man-made disasters affected lives. They were regarded as development partners of the government following the ousting of the military government. One should also note that this honeymoon was almost following the publication of the internationally controversial book of the celebrated journalist and historical analyst Graham Hancock, ‘Lords of Poverty’ in 1989.

The political and social reforms following the pressure within the country and from outside agencies such as the IMF and World Bank put the government of EPRDF under immense pressure since it took power, and continued on until the mid of the millennium. This was further aggravated by the poor performance of the economy and the economic challenges in the country. Therefore, while situations were really staggering for the government, the role of CSOs often called Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs), were ‘critical’ for the government. They were able to generate the desperately needed foreign currency and share the burden of supplying basic services for the public such as health, education, water, and sanitation.

The role of the then NGOs in creating job opportunities, as often quoted by many as ‘highly paid’ professionals, in the country in both the international and local NGOs was an important character.

Many, however, started to consider the EPRDF led government as opportunist seeing its disregard of the role of the NGOs once it was able to ensure a solid government entity. As many remember, restrictions and limitations started being exhibited systematically through the highly centralised administrative structure of the government.

Their activities were beyond the level of being tolerated anymore by the time the 2005 election was around the clock. Many claimed that the NGOs transformed themselves from actors of development in the early times to finding it relevant to engage in human rights issues. This started to push the government to closely watch over the activities of the NGOs claiming that they were acting beyond their jurisdictions. More specifically during the 2005 election, NGOs were more active towards creating electoral awareness and pushing the EPRDF to widen the political platform.

When the issues were more of a question of power and influence for EPRDF, all the honeymoon and happy hours for the NGOs came to an end. The party/government went to the extent of harassing, detaining and charging employees of these organizations for obstructing the democratic electoral practices in the country with ‘outside driven missions’.

Having passed the bloodiest election in the history of this country, EPRDF was in full watch and action to control the activities of NGOs in the country. The result of all this control was further complemented by the enactment of the controversial 2008 Civil Societies Act. Though there are a number of issues that are pointed out from this act, the part that demands CSOs that engage in Rights issues to generate 90Pct of their fund from within the country, was considered as a blatant act of repression. Many mock this act of the government with an analogy of a child trying to fool its parents.

The issue of budget allocation was also among the controversial issues. The so called 70/30 ratio demanded NGOs to use 30Pct of their fund to the administrative expense; a category that is further strictly designed to include almost all administrative costs and overhead costs.
According to data from the Charities and Societies Agency, following this restrictive act almost three fourth of the NGOs/CSOs in the country were forced to shut down. Although there are many who argue that CSOs are also exhibiting problems of corruption and embezzlement, the restriction of the government was obviously beyond correcting such mal practices.

What is new now?
‘Reform’ has been a buzz word from the EPRDF camp since 2018. What actually happened was a weak group in power within the ruling coalition was overpowered by a new group within the party. With the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn, the group behind his shadow was exposed and forced to leave the power to the new team often called ‘Team Lemma’, named after the then Chair of the Oromo People Democratic Organization (OPDO) and Head of the state of Oromia, Lemma Megerssa. An emerging key figure behind this was found to be a soldier/intelligence personnel/technocrat/politician now known as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD).

The coming of Abiy to power was followed by expected and not determined changes including the review of a number of rules and regulations. Among these is the 2008 CSOs Act. According to commentators, the most important changes introduced due to the revised CSO regulations are; widening the platform for engagement for CSOs, re-organization of the regulatory agency with the sentiment of partnership with CSOs, wider opportunity for resource mobilization efforts and better relationship with donors from the international community.

Challenges
It is common to hear complains in that the 2008 CSOs legislation in Ethiopia had targeted disintegrating the most influential human resource in the sector. Many further argue that because the sector was highly rewarding in terms of professional payments and privileges, the human resource in the sector before the 2008 legislation was incredibly influential. However, following the pressure on professionals in particular and restrictions on the sector in general, many fled to other engagements. Some claim that better minds in the sector were forced to flee the country and engaged in almost similar assignments.

Despite this core problem, there are a number of other challenges that according to players in the sector are results of the hangover from the 2008 legislation.

Resource mobilization is one of the factors identified to be a challenge for CSOs now. Actors in the sector highlight that the interest of donors and CSOs are found to not be compatible in some aspects. On the other hand, the human resource capacity for resource mobilization is also the other aspect of the same challenge. In addition, project documents concerning human rights based intervention are found to be unappealing to the appetite of donors as they used to be.

The structure of the regulatory body is available at all levels of the administration in the country. However, institutional and human capacity to regulate and coordinate activities engaged at all levels does not look convincing enough for the actors. Some even complain on the restrictive actions of these organs. According to commentators, the lower the administrative structure, the higher the challenge for the CSOs.
The role of CSOs is well accepted by the general public. However, all the propaganda and categorization that followed the 2005 election, according to actors in the sector, affected public perception that in turn is affecting public engagement with CSOs until now.

Similar to the situation mentioned above, the painting of CSOs as bodies working against the government in the last decade is still the image in the minds of some people. This in turn, is causing challenges in the activities of some of the CSOs at grassroots level.

Actors in the sector still have concerns over the interest and implicit engagement of some parties to use CSOs and their platforms as a means of facilitating their interests and agenda. These people are worried that this act will be the most threatening one for CSOs.

Finally, as it is in the case of other sectors, engagement of CSOs with the media has not been strategic and complementary. Having considered the competitive nature of the two towards securing the interest and attention of the public, the two may not work together. However, people in the sector claim that missing the modalities and strategies for both to engage together will be a potential challenge for CSOs in Ethiopia.


8th Year • Sep.16 – Oct.15 2019 • No. 78

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