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Ethiopia fears over aid clampdown

Ethiopian residents receive a sack of food aid at a distribution centre

By Elizabeth Blunt
BBC News, Addis Ababa

Non-governmental organisations in Ethiopia are waiting anxiously to see if the effects of a proposed new law will stunt their growth or stop their operations altogether.

The controversial bill to regulate the country's charities and societies has been months in the making and has been through several drafts.

It even provoked a visit to Ethiopia by the US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy and Human Rights, David Kramer, who said he feared the new law would close down a number of projects currently funded by the American government.

It has to do with the fear that people might get reprisals... for giving financial support to organisations like human rights NGOs
Yosef Mulugeta
Ethiopian Human Rights Council

Much of the bill is common to charity law anywhere - to be registered as a charity, an organisation has to have appointed officers, regular meetings and properly audited accounts.

The most controversial part of the bill is the one which divides all NGOs into local or international organisations:

• Local NGOs cannot take more than 10% of their funds from foreign sources

• International NGOs cannot work in a number of fields, including conflict resolution, children's rights, disabled rights and criminal justice reform.

In short anything that could be considered at all political is reserved for local organisations only.

Foreign funding

The government says the bill is designed to prevent foreign interference in the country's political affairs.

Families at Bisidimo hospital
Foreign aid groups can distribute food but not political advice

The prime minister's spokesman, Bereket Simon, told one journalist that Ethiopia needed foreign NGOs to help with poverty alleviation and development, but that the political realm had to be left for Ethiopians.

But the bill as it stands would put some of the country's NGOs out of business.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Council, for instance, currently gets more than 90% of its money from abroad.

Its general secretary, Yosef Mulugeta, told the BBC that the council could not survive without foreign funding.

"It has to do with the culture," he said.

"It has to do with poverty, and it also has to do with the fear that people might get reprisals from the government for giving financial support to organisations like human rights NGOs."

Charities can accept foreign funds and be classified as international NGOs, but then of course they would be barred from certain kinds of activity.

Government exemptions

One such organisation, whose core work is definitely political, is the Institute of Security Studies (ISS), a South Africa-based organisation which has a branch in the capital, Addis Ababa because it is the headquarters of the African Union.

ISS Director Kenneth Mpyisi said that if you read the text of the bill carefully, there were certain issues, such as conflict resolution, reconciliation, promotion of the efficiency of justice and law enforcement, which could in theory apply to some of his organisation's work.

But, he said, there were exemptions for organisations working with the government.

He said he was hoping that the ISS's association with the regional organisation Igad, of which Ethiopia is a member, would mean that the legislation would not apply.

In fact, many charities and societies which have contacted the justice ministry have been told not to worry - the legislation is not aimed at them.

The Ministry of Justice says that the latest draft of the bill has now been passed by Ethiopia's Council of Ministers, and it only remains for it to be approved by parliament.

Only once it is in force will it become clear how much - or how little - Ethiopia's charities and societies have to fear.



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