A year on, NGOs still struggle in Ethiopia without Zenawi

A busy market in Ethiopia's Oromia region. The situation for nongovernmental organizations in the country has "worsened" under the current regime. Photo by: Apollo Habtamu / ILRI / CC BY-NC-SA

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.”


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.”

Read more development aid news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive top international development headlines from the world’s leading donors, news sources and opinion leaders — emailed to you FREE every business day.

About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.

Join the Discussion