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A year on, NGOs still struggle in Ethiopia without Zenawi

A year after the death of former Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi, hopes for change in the African country remain bleak, including for local aid groups struggling to cope with a wide range of restrictions over their work.

The Ethiopian government passed in 2009 a law that restricted NGO fundraising activities and operations, and imposed stricter requirements for registration, like asking charities and civil society organizations to secure a letter of recommendation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Four years later and with the dictator out of the picture, the law remains a burden to aid groups, whose numbers have decreased since. Prior to 2009, there were reportedly some 3,822 registered civil society organizations in Ethiopia, but today there are no more than 1,500, according to a local aid official.

In fact, the official told Devex the situation for NGOs has “worsened” under the current regime.

NGOs still targeted

A year later, sources inside the country note the government of current Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has failed to make it easier for these organizations to do their job.

“The majority of Ethiopian local NGOs are in depression” due to limited funds and registration difficulties, noted the official. 

Many groups depend heavily on a small pool of foreign donors. And the Charities and Societies Agency, created in 2009 to regulate CSO activities, implements according to this source “double standards” during registration, being more welcoming to NGOs that support the ruling party.

“Some optimists hoped that with new leadership the Ethiopian government would change track and carry out human rights reforms, including amending the abusive CSO and anti-terrorism laws,” Laetitia Bader, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Devex. “Disappointingly, instead we see much the same patterns on the human rights front — including large scale arrests of peaceful protestors and prosecution of dissenting voices.”

But what seemed to particularly upset the local official is that donors do not seem to be helping to ease these restrictions on CSOs.

For instance, the official finds British support to build the capacity of the CSA as helping the government weaken the CSO sector: “DFID [is] repeatedly helping the Agency while civil society [is] in crisis.”

The U.K. Department for International Development has a program whose aims include improving the dialogue between the government and civil society sector, and bridging the gap between the two. The program began in 2010, a year after the NGO law was passed, and eventually included capacity building for CSA to meet the program’s objective. 

But an annual review of the program concluded in November 2012 noted: “CSO perception of a conducive political and legal environment is not improving; the Agency database is neither publicly accessible nor currently up to date; federal-regional cooperation is not moving forward (to our knowledge); Agency understanding of the civil society sector is not improving (partly due to high staff turnover); and the guidelines and regulations have only received a very minor amendment due to pressure from CSOs and DPs.”

This is not the first time that DfID has been subject to criticism over its work in Ethiopia. The agency made headlines last year following its alleged plans to use part of its foreign aid budget for Ethiopia to train a police force accused of committing human rights abuses. DfID has dismissed the issue.

Bader said: “We are concerned about any approach to the CSO law that is based on negotiating individual exemptions or waivers. This just allows the government to cherry-pick agencies, which completely undermines freedom of association. The law violates Ethiopia’s constitution and international human rights standards and needs to be amended; without fundamental changes it will be impossible to achieve a significant improvement in the working environment for NGOs.”

Misunderstanding

Michael Shiferaw, communications officer for the Civil Society Support Program, which is managed by the British Council in Ethiopia and is also receiving some criticism, noted they are aware of these concerns, sometimes perhaps due to some misunderstanding or miscommunication.

“We try to bridge the gap between the agency does and what CSOs in general are doing by finding a common ground,” he told Devex.

These realities are not helping address the country’s multiple problems, such as unemployment, high cost of living and corruption.

Zenawi dreamt of Ethiopia someday becoming a middle-income country. And while the current regime may be trying to reach that by trying to improve infrastructure, many see this dream as far-fetched. 

“It looks like an illusion … still we are in agrarian society and majority of rural areas are food insecure … When [I] go to rural Ethiopia I consider myself as if we are living inhuman way of life,” explained the official. “For example, I was born from farmers family [and they are still] depending on me. I monthly send [them money]. If I quit even for one month, they can’t exist.”

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EU group: Ethiopia should release jailed report

By    KIRUBEL TADESSE, Associated Press :

 Wednesday, July 17, 2013, 10:20 AM EDT

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) — A European Union parliament delegation on Wednesday called on Ethiopia's government to release jailed journalists and activists, but in a sign the call may not be heeded the delegation was denied from visiting a prison it had been approved to see.

The head of the delegation, Barbara Lochbihler, said Ethiopia is jailing journalists and activists for "exercising their legitimate right to freedoms of expression, association and religion." The group is concerned by reports of misuse of the country's anti-terrorism legislation to stifle dissent, she said.

"Despite the country's excellent constitution, we note flaws in the impartiality of the judicial system," Lochbihler told journalists at a press conference Wednesday.

A spokesman for the Ethiopian Prime Minister said the country doesn't have any political prisoners and that prisoners would not be released "just because some European Union members said so."

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Ethiopian government criminalizes the coverage of any group the government deems to be a terrorist group, a list that includes opposition political parties.

"Among those jailed is Eskinder Nega, an award-winning blogger whose critical commentary on the government's extensive use of anti-terror laws led to his own conviction on terrorism charges," the group said in its latest survey, which placed Ethiopia among the world's top ten worst jailers of journalists.

The EU parliament delegation said certain broadcasters are jammed in Ethiopia and that access to the Internet and social media are "regularly restricted." The practice is at odds with the Ethiopian constitution, the delegation said in a statement.

The four-person delegation, drawn from the parliament's subcommittee on human rights, said the Ethiopian government must guarantee freedom of speech and the right to peaceful assembly at all times in accordance with its constitution and obligations under international law. The delegation met top government officials, activists and leaders of the opposition.

Earlier on Wednesday the delegation was scheduled to visit to the country's Kaliti prison where most activists are believed to be serving their sentence. But the prison director turned the group back on arrival, saying "he didn't have time to work with you," according to a member of the delegation, Jorg Leichtfried.

Leichtfried told a news conference their visit was "overshadowed" by the incident. He described it as an episode he doesn't wish to experience again. All four delegation members spoke about the incident, which appeared to have frustrated them.

The delegation said Ethiopia itself has requested international assistance to improve its detention centers and their visit was to have a firsthand experience of the detention conditions.

Getachew Reda, a spokesman for Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, said he was not aware of any decisions either to grant permission to see the prison or to deny it. Getachew said only family members can visit the prisoners.

"We don't have any single political prisoner in the country. We do have, like any other country, people who were convicted of crimes including terrorism who are currently serving their sentence. They would only be freed when either they complete their sentence or probation on good behavior," Getachew told the Associated Press on Wednesday. "We are not going to do release anyone just because some European Union members said so."

He criticized the delegation's statement, calling it "unhelpful" to relations between Ethiopia and the EU.

The EU is one of Ethiopia's largest donors with millions of dollar spent on development projects across the country.

Hailemariam was scheduled to meet the visiting delegation on Wednesday night.

The European lawmakers also met with African Union officials. Lochbihler criticized Nigeria and the AU for allowing Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to travel to Abuja earlier this week. The International Criminal Court has an arrest warrant out for Bashir.

 

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