21 March 2014

Ethiopia: Dispatches: Removing the Bar for Ethiopia

press release

On March 19, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) decided to admit Ethiopia as a candidate country. With this move, the EITI may have added a member, but it lost its credibility as a good governance initiative.

Bringing together stakeholders from government, industry and civil society organizations, the EITI is supposed to provide incentives for governments to improve transparency in the oil, gas and mining sectors. One key criterion for membership in the group is that governments commit to meaningful participation for civil society on issues related to natural resources. The EITI Standard instructs that, "government must ensure there are no obstacles to civil society and company participation in the process," including with regard to "relevant laws, regulations, and administrative rules as well as actual practice in implementation of the EITI."

The logic is simple: publishing data on natural resource issues can only lead to better government decisions if there's real public scrutiny and an opportunity for civic engagement.

Ethiopia, however, is one of the most repressive countries in the world when it comes to the ability of independent civil society and media to function. Admitting Ethiopia to EITI isn't just lowering the bar on the need for civil society participation, it's removing the bar entirely.

The EITI decision is all the more disturbing because in 2010 the EITI Board rightly rejected Ethiopia's candidacy. It recognized that a draconian 2009 civil society law fundamentally represses civil society in the country, and stated that it would reconsider Ethiopia's application only when the law was "no longer in place."

The law prohibits nongovernmental organizations from working in human rights and good governance if they receive more than 10 percent of their funds from abroad. As a result, today there are few organizations working on these issues and those that do, self-censor and straddle a knife-edge, always concerned about a potential crackdown. The situation for media freedom is equally dire: Ethiopia has jailed and forced into exile more journalists than anywhere else in Africa, except Eritrea.

Yet, in a complete reversal from its 2010 stance and despite considerable and sometimes bitter debate at a session in Oslo, EITI endorsed Ethiopia's candidacy.Troublingly, EITI Chair Clare Short claimed that the decision showed "the Board was convinced by the government's commitment to the EITI's principles."

But without a change in Ethiopia's law, the EITI itself has undermined those principles.

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