13 July 2017

Ethiopia: Behind the Shrinking Number of Civic Societies

opinion

The number of civic societies working in human and democratic rights reported to have declined while opposing views appear for the reasons of the downturn.

The ratification of Charities and Associations Proclamation that came into effect in 2009 is what some members of the associations attribute as a reason behind the decline. Though the government argues their number plummeted because they have been closed down for violating the proclamation and due to the failure to play an active role in the society.

According to Human Rights Council the proclamation prohibits receiving foreign fund and triggers financial constraints on the association. This could be a major attributable factor for making civil societies fragile.

The proclamation restricts foreign fund to stand at 10 per cent only out of the total budget. As a result, the council which had been reporting and documenting human rights violations across the nation is now only active in some areas, says Council Deputy Chairperson Amha Mekonnen.

Though the proclamation allows associations to generate income to subsidize their budget from the service they offer, it proves infeasible to those working in the area of human and democratic rights.

"The major setback is that the proclamation has came into force at the time when the public did not developed habit of financing such associations, that's why it hurts them badly," he notes. "Sometimes we are not even allowed to organize fund raising programmes."

On the other hand, he noted, some government officials refuse to provide the necessary information as the council seeks to investigate claims of violation.

While the government shows initiation to build democracy through deep renewal, a lot remain to be done in terms of permitting such associations to get the needed financial support and access to genuine information, as to him.

He also sees a promising prospect. "I think it is good that the government is trying to renew itself, and I hope that this would ease the problem that we face," Amha envisions.

He calls on the government to offer the associations the needed support and create conducive environment so that they would be able to back the democratic process.

According to some studies, the number of civic societies has dropped to 3,185 in 2017 from 4,700 that were in 2005.

Ethiopian Lawyers Association General Secretary Yoseph Aemiro stated it is the responsibility of every citizen to empower civic associations working in the area of human rights protection.

His association provided free judicial services and training to members and other volunteer legal experts until the proclamation took effect. "The proclamation poses a big challenge to the associations that are struggling to help improve human rights situation in the country," Yoseph stresses.

The proclamation forces the associations to allocate 70 and 30 per cent of their budget for projects and internal administration respectively. "This would undermine the right and independence of the association" he adds

Therefore amending the proclamation's articles that deals with budget allocation and financial sources might help revive the associations.

On the other hand, lack of commitment from the side of the associations is by itself a challenge. Ethiopian Teachers Association General Secretary Tilahun Tarekegn says some associations are not robust and do not stand firm to their causes. Had they done so, they would have been able to solicit finance from the public.

Reacting to the concerns of the associations, Ethiopian Charities and Associations Agency Communication Director Mesfin Tadesse says the proclamation was endorsed to protect the associations from the influence vested interests of foreign organizations and promote their local base and capacity. This year alone 27 civic societies working on development and democratic rights have their license revoked.

Restricting their budget allocation and financial support is also essential for the associations to give priority to advocating the public's demand, he stresses, admitting that some amendments could be needed if researches would confirm the concerns the associations have been raising.

"The right to form associations is the right of citizens though they must be organized, led and funded by Ethiopians. That is why the government enacted the proclamation."

Some associations are doing well in advocating the public demand while others are failing to do so, as to him.

Currently, 110 non-governmental organizations are active in development and human and democratic rights.

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