Washington — A major international initiative aimed at promoting transparency in the extractives industry is coming under harsh criticism for accepting an application from Ethiopia, despite significant ongoing legal restrictions on the country's civil society.
The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a standards programme based in Oslo, had declined a previous application for candidature from Ethiopia, in 2010.
The previous year, the Ethiopian government had passed a law widely seen as repressive, and the EITI board stipulated that the country's application would be deferred until that law was struck down.
Yet despite the fact that the law remains in place, on Wednesday the EITI board voted to accept Ethiopia's application to become a candidate for full membership in the organisation. Some say the group has now violated its own rules.
"We're very disappointed by this. If these people don't follow the criteria, what's the point of having criteria?" Obang Metho, executive director of the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia, a Washington-based advocacy group, told IPS.
"Today it is impossible for civil society to function in Ethiopia, because of this bill. We can wait for years for changes, but as long as the current government is there I can't foresee any tangible change. This decision [by EITI] is not going to be productive."
The law in question is known as the Charities and Societies Proclamation (CSP). Ethiopia's first comprehensive legislation to regulate the registration of civil society groups, the law places onerous restrictions on groups that receive more than 10 percent of their funding from foreign sources.
It also forbids organisations from engaging in a range of activities central to ensuring public oversight over the government and its officials.
The United Nations has warned that the law has "devastating" ramifications for the ability of Ethiopians to effectively form and operate civil society organisations.
Such concerns are particularly relevant for EITI, which, since its founding in 2003, has offered a unique platform for cooperation between the extractives industry, government and civil society.
Importantly, each of these elements is to receive equal voice within the EITI system, with the immediate aim of sector-specific transparency meant to translate into broader strengthening of good governance.
Thus, if the civil society component isn't able to function effectively, the entire process would cease to function. That, anyway, was EITI's own concern in 2010, when it rejected Ethiopia's application - the first time the board had ever taken such an action.
The EITI "board concluded that Ethiopia's [CSP] would prevent civil society groups from being sufficiently independent and meaningfully participate in the process," Anthony Richter, a member of the EITI board, stated in 2010. "The board decided, in effect, not to admit Ethiopia 'until the [CSP] is no longer in place'."
The EITI board made another high-visibility decision on Wednesday, voting to accept the candidature application of the United States (as well as that of Papua New Guinea). Yet if EITI has gone back on its own rules, critics say, the standard's important overall potential will have been weakened.
"Before this decision, EITI was a prominent global initiative, considered to be one of the leading efforts to increase transparency and give citizens a chance to have a voice in important matters in their countries," Lisa Misol, a senior business and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), a watchdog group, told IPS.
"Now I think all governments need to ask themselves what's the value of being part of an initiative that allows in a country that doesn't allow its citizens to make any use of this transparency. Unfortunately, EITI has sacrificed its credibility and irreparably harmed its own reputation."
EITI currently lists 26 countries as compliant with its standards, and another 18 countries, including Ethiopia and the United States, as candidates. In total, 35 countries have produced formal EITI reports over the past decade.
Yet the decision to move forward with and approve Ethiopia's application during this week's EITI meeting reportedly led to deep divisions in the group's board.
While the EITI secretariat did not respond to a query from IPS, it has been quick to note that acceptance of Ethiopia's application to become a candidate country means that the Ethiopian government now has three years to come into full compliance with EITI's standards.
"Some opposed this decision, but it should be remembered that becoming a candidate does not mean that any country has met the EITI Standard," Clare Short, the EITI chair, said in a statement after the board's meeting.
"In the case of Ethiopia, the decision shows that the Board was convinced by the government's commitment to the EITI's principles.
Membership of the EITI will mean that all stakeholders, including civil society, will have a better platform to hold the government and the companies to account and ensure the better management of the burgeoning sector."
For its part, the Ethiopian government states that it has already set up a national steering committee made up of government, industry and civil society representatives, and has begun a series of trainings on the EITI standards. Its most recent application, from October, also deals directly with concerns over the CSP.
"In our view, the proclamation is not meant to restrict the operation of the civil society," an introductory letter, presumably written by Minister of Mines Sinknesh Ejigu, states, "rather to create conducive environment for their activities as well as ensure transparency and accountability, establish a legal framework for their operation."
Yet critics are pushing back strongly against the suggestion that EITI will now have more leverage to effect positive change in Ethiopia.
"The simple fact is that the EITI process won't be able to advance any improvements unless civil society is at the table and has a voice," HRW's Misol says.
"It's shocking to me that the board of an initiative that values civic participation has just endorsed Ethiopia as a candidate when there is no ability to have a functioning civil society in that country. The moment of leverage was before joining Ethiopia to join the club - not once it's in. In effect, EITI has now neutered its own civil society criteria."
Ethiopia will now be required to submit its first formal report to EITI by March 2016.