Ethiopia: Charities and Societies Proclamation

From VOA (via, not very encouraging news out of Ethiopia on the democratization front:

Ethiopian officials have told western diplomats that parliament will approve a proposed Charities and Societies Proclamation within weeks. The bill would give the government supervisory powers over non-governmental organizations that receive at least 10 percent foreign funding, including money from Ethiopians living abroad.

The text before lawmakers prohibits such NGOs from promoting democratic or human rights, the rights of children and the disabled, and equality of gender or religion. Violators could face up to 15 years in prison and fines up to $10,000.

Sure, the Ethiopian government has every right to promulgate reasonable regulations for NGOs operating within the country.  But I cannot see any justification for these restrictions.  

Meles Zenawi’s government says that NGOs are still welcome in Ethiopia, but with conditions:

A senior adviser to the prime minister, Bereket Simon, says NGOs will still be welcome to help fight poverty. But he says the bill is designed to prevent foreign interference in the country’s political affairs. “We need foreign NGOs to participate in poverty alleviation programs and to participate in development works, but we definitely believe the political realm must be left for Ethiopians. That is the prerogative of Ethiopians.”

But funding is not necessarily tantamount to control, and certainly not when the threshold of foreign funding that would subject NGOs to these restrictions is just 10 percent.  And if the rationale is to leave the political realm for Ethiopians, why subject NGO to these restrictions if they receive funds from Ethiopians in the diaspora? 

When all else fails, play the “terrorist” card:

Bereket says the law is aimed partly at what he described as ‘NGOs collaborating with terrorist organizations’. He declined to elaborate.

Emerging democracies like Ethiopia should be doing everything they can to promote the development of a strong and independent civil society – not one dominated by the state.

Here’s the recent statement by Human Rights Watch on the proposed legislation:

The Charities and Societies Proclamation (CSO law) would provide the government a potent tool to intimidate and weaken Ethiopia’s long beleaguered civil society. Although the bill has been revised twice since May 2008, the current version retains many of the most alarming provisions.  
“The only reason to have such a repressive law is if it would be used to strangle Ethiopia’s few remaining independent voices,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Donor governments should make clear to Ethiopia that enacting this law will threaten future funding.” 

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