Ethiopia has a long tradition of informal community-based organizations that operate at the local level. However, in 2009, the government adopted the “Charities and Societies Proclamation” (CSP), which strictly regulates the activities of CSOs through the Ethiopian Charities & Societies Agency.[i] Civil society representatives report that the law is problematically vague and grants broad authority to the Agency to interpret and apply its regulation.

Under the Proclamation, all CSOs working in the country must register with the Agency; however, many informal or community based organizations have difficulty complying with the complex application process. Some civil society groups that have tried to complete the application process report that their registration was denied for arbitrary reasons. Additionally, the Agency precludes banks from providing services to CSOs without a letter of support from the Agency, which places an additional administrative hurdle before CSOs and limits their independence.

Under current law, CSOs receiving more than 10% of their funding from foreign sources may not conduct programs the Agency considers to be “political work.” Political work is broadly defined to include non-partisan programs promoting good governance, accountability, transparency, and human rights. The broad definition permits the Agency to classify programs that, for example, protect the rights of children, women, and individuals with disabilities, as political work.

The law also precludes CSOs from spending more than 30% of their budget on “administrative costs.” Administrative costs are broadly defined to include salaries, expenses for monitoring and evaluation, transportation, and communications costs even when those costs directly support specific programs. This places another unreasonable burden on CSOs. Consequently, it is reported that up to 90% of domestic CSOs focusing on governance or human rights have either closed or shifted the focus of their work since 2009.

Activists also report that government officials stigmatize CSOs that receive foreign funding by publically accusing them of being “foreign agents,” promoting neo-liberalism, and/or of being “rent seekers” who do nothing for the country.

Activists in Ethiopia established the CSO Taskforce to coordinate advocacy for greater freedom of association including access to funding. The Taskforce and other consortia have conducted research on the negative impact of the CSP and the positive impact civil society has on communities. The research highlights several instances in which CSOs’ innovate approaches to addressing societal issues were so successful they were adapted by the government. Researchers have also demonstrated the  , which is greater than Ethiopia’s export earnings. The research demonstrates the potential of the CSO sector as a partner in development and democracy. Although these efforts have allowed civil society to forcefully petition the Prime Minister to ease restrictions on donor funding, Ethiopian CSOs recognize they have a long way to go.

UPDATE: In June 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office and the Minister of Federal Affairs convened working groups to review and re-draft Ethiopia’s Charities and Societies Proclamation (CSP), Anti-Terror Proclamation (ATP), and Mass Media and Freedom of Information Proclamation. This positive development aims to draft a new law that will address problematic elements of the CSP such as limits on foreign funding, and the definition of and limits to administrative costs. The CSP working group is composed of three Addis University professors, two civil society representatives, and one CSP office representative. It is currently developing terms of reference, and is coordinating with the International Center for Not-for-Profit-Law (ICNL) and other experts to identify best practices and guiding principles. The CSP working group was given a three-month deadline to complete its work culminating with a new draft law in October, 2018.

Ethiopia’s House of People’s Representatives adopted the Civil Society Organizations Proclamation on February 5, 2019. While the new Proclamation lowered the allotment for administrative costs from 30% to 20%, it more precisely defined administrative costs and did not include training, research, or networking as administrative costs. The Proclamation also removed the foreign funding provision in the CSP that limited foreign funding for domestic organizations to 10% and eliminated criminal sanctions for violating the Proclamation. The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Clément Voule, commended the reforms, but called on Ethiopia to continue efforts to address remaining concerns, such as granting the Civil Society Agency Board additional powers to dissolve organizations.