Biting the hands that feed millions

By Prof Alemayehu G. Mariam / October 27, 2008
NGOs as the New “Whipping Boys”?

If you can’t feed your people, bite the hands that feed them. That seems to be the metaphysics (first principles that define reality) of the Zenawi regime. Oxfam, Save the Children, Food for the Hungry International, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent, Medecins Sans Frontieres, the International Islamic Relief Organization, and hundreds of other non-governmental organizations will soon be out of business in Ethiopia or submit to one of the most repressive and anti-non-governmental (NGO) laws in the world.

Last week, David Kramer, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy and Human Rights, visited Ethiopia to ask Zenawi “to reconsider provisions in a draft law that would criminalize many activities of foreign non-governmental organizations.” Commenting after the meeting, Kramer said, “I did convey to him concerns that we have and have heard from others about some trends that would point to a closing of political space.” Kramer was particularly disturbed by a string of repressive actions taken by the regime in recent months including the “April election earlier this year” and “the media law that was passed”. Kramer candidly stated that the “legislation could force the closure of several aid projects funded by the U.S. government. My bureau for example funds programs that deal with issues of women's empowerment, with media, with conflict resolution, and based on my understanding of the latest version of the proclamation that I've seen so far, those programs could be adversely affected.” According to a VOA report, there are an estimated 3,000 NGOs1 currently operating in Ethiopia with annual expenditures in excess of $1 billion a year.

Bereket Simon, Zenawi’s shadowy advisor, rejected the criticism arguing that the “law” would enhance democracy by empowering the people. “This is simply a ridiculous assertion. Since we're promoting democracy, I don't think any genuinely democratic NGO shall be afraid of empowering our people. We are empowering our people. Nothing has been taken from the right of the people, and that's what concerns us most, and if these NGO critics are really interested in what is taking place in Ethiopia, in empowering the public, I think there should be no concern or fear.”

Simon’s argument, if it could be deconstructed, is pure ignoratio elenchi (a red herring, a deliberate attempt to change the subject or divert the argument). Kramer’s concern is not that Simon’s regime is promoting democracy and empowering people; rather it is that the “proclamation” will effectively destroy NGOs in Ethiopia as independent non-governmental civil society institutions. Simply stated, the concern is that the “proclamation” treats foreign NGO as shadow opposition political groups and seeks to systematically neutralize and dismantle them.

What are NGOs Anyway?

NGOs are part of what are commonly referred to as civil society organizations. Such include charities, community associations and groups, women's and youth organizations, religious organizations, professional associations, trade unions, business associations and a variety of other self-help and advocacy groups. The NGO movement began to expand in the mid-1980s in response to social injustice and inequality issues in repressive states, including the former communist societies. NGO activists were committed to promoting ideas and practices of local empowerment, political participation and increased democratization in society. In the developing societies, they focused their efforts to help the poor and dispossessed materially and in terms of organization to have influence in the policy process. As Secretary Kramer indicated, many Western donor countries, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other organizations use NGOs to support projects ranging from environmental conservation, AIDS prevention and treatment, anti-poverty programs in the rural areas, micro-credit programs, and information systems development.

The So-called Charities and Societies Proclamation

“A pig wearing lipstick is still a pig,” goes the old saying. The diktat (unchallengeable command or decree) of a dictator by any other name (“charities and societies proclamation”) is still a diktat. The fact that a diktat is presented to a rubberstamp parliament does not change the fact that the diktat is the will of the dictator and not the “peoples’ representatives." That is what makes this whole discussion of the “charities law” rather silly and absurd. Many of us seem to miss entirely the simple fact that “The Law” in a dictatorship is merely a tool of repression and social and political control, and the means for legitimizing political power. It is not about limiting the arbitrary powers of government, imposing accountability on public officials, good governance or any of the principles associated with constitutionalism and popular sovereignty. “The Law” in a dictatorship is certainly not about the rule of law (the idea that governmental authority is legitimately exercised only in accordance with written, publicly disclosed fair laws and established procedures). Simply stated: “The Law” in a dictatorship is the equivalent of the lipstick on the proverbial pig.

So, what is the “charities and societies proclamation”? In its purest form, it is a legal tool in an official campaign to intimidate and ultimately silence human rights and civil society organizations that are perceived as critical and unfriendly to the ruling regime in Ethiopia. At root of the “proclamation” are anger, fear and loathing by the Ethiopian dictatorship against that international NGOs for exposing the regime’s massive human rights violations. A recent study commissioned by the regime and completed by Col. Michael Dewars, an internationally renowned expert on “urban warfare," shows that the regime feels deeply stung and embarrassed by the activities of international human rights organizations in the aftermath of the 2005 parliamentary elections.2

According to Amnesty International, the “proposed new legislation would criminalize human rights activities undertaken by both international and Ethiopian organizations who receive more 10 percent of their funding from abroad.” It would also make “illegal campaigning for gender equality, children's rights, disabled persons' rights, conflict resolution and judicial and law enforcement capacity-building.” The law further creates a “Charities and Societies Agency with broad discretionary power over civil society organizations, which would allow strict government control and interference in the operation and management of civil society organizations.” AI concluded: “Ethiopia’s draft law cannot be edited or further amended to make it acceptable; it is inherently abusive of basic human rights in that it seeks primarily to intimidate and dismantle the country’s already-beleaguered civil society actors and criminalize human rights-related work carried out by international organizations. The draft should be scrapped and either replaced with a bill that does not have the infringement of basic human rights as its primary aim, or else the idea of an Ethiopian NGO law should be abandoned altogether.”

Monkey See, Monkey Do

The assault on NGOs and civil society organizations is not limited to Ethiopia. For the past few years, it has been open season on NGOs in a number of countries that have faced criticism over their human rights records. The crackdown on NGOs began in earnest with the crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989. After Tiananmen, the Chinese government saw a clear threat and challenge to its power from the operation of independent civic organizations. They devised strict registration requirements to effectively undermine the independence of the NGOs. Simultaneously, they implemented a strategy of co-optation of NGOs under a structured system of “government-organized non-governmental organizations”, called “Gongos." These Gongos, often headed by retired party officials and bureaucrats, operate under the supervision of the state agencies to engage in local charitable activities. As a result, there are virtually no civic groups in China today in the form of independent labor unions, student unions, religious groups or other civil society institutions. In 2006, Vladimir Putin issued executive orders which authorized broad control over NGOs in Russia including compulsory registration, activity reporting and fiscal scrutiny by oversight agencies.

In 2006, the Sudanese government adopted a law which required "non-interference by foreign and international organizations in the internal affairs of the Sudan, to the extent that these infringe upon the sovereignty of the country". NGOs working to bring aid to civilian survivors of the Darfur genocide were effectively prevented from doing their relief work. In 2004, Mugabe enacted “The Non-governmental Organizations Act” in Zimbabwe, specifically targeting organizations that “promote and protect human rights." That law forces all non-governmental agencies to register with a state-appointed commission and makes it illegal for them to receive foreign funding. In Latin America, Brazil has been cracking down on foreign NGOs working in the Amazon rainforest. Heavy fines are imposed on NGOs working in the Amazon without official permission. President Alvaro Uribe has attacked NGOs as “spokesmen” and “politickers” of terrorism.” NGOs continue to experience serious problems in many of the world’s failed states.

Why Try to Hammer NGOs in Ethiopia Now?

Most people of strong democratic conviction appreciate and support NGOs for their efforts to promote democratic practices in repressive political environments. NGOs often serve and advocate on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged. Their role in societies without effective opposition political parties is greatly magnified. Because of their advocacy role, repressive regimes generally view NGOs as a threat to their power. But over time, a strange chemistry has evolved between the NGOs and dictatorships.

Dictatorships need NGOs for various things: to maintain a façade of democracy, to provide services they can not themselves provide and as convenient excuses to evade public accountability. For a period of time, for instance, the regime in Ethiopia managed to hoodwink the West by playacting democracy. “We are a growing democracy. We have civil societies. NGOs operate freely.” Western donors would heap praise on them. They would call them “new breed of African leaders”. The World Bank, the IMF and the U.S. government, as indicated by Assistant Secretary Kramer, poured in large amounts of loans and aid because they felt confident the NGOs would be able to do relief and development work without the taint of corruption of the local government.

When the regime could no longer hide the famine by calling it “severe malnutrition," they called upon the NGOs and donor governments to provide millions of tons of grain. Because the NGOs helped bridge the gap in the food deficit, the regime was able to avoid a much higher level of scrutiny and accountability for not planning ahead to avert a famine in the first place and for mismanaging the economy. That is the ironic duality in the functioning of the NGOs. They are like a double-edged sword. Inasmuch as they serve to bridge the gap between the masses and the government and provide a veneer of legitimacy, they are also independent enough to stand up against the repressive acts of government, often by exposing human rights violations and corruption and abuse of power. That is the reason, for instance, the Ethiopian regime bitterly criticizes AI for its human rights work. The regime’s strategy in micromanaging the foreign NGOs comes out of this contradiction. To paraphrase an old humorous saying, the regime finds itself in a situation where it “can’t live with NGOs and it can’t live without them.”

It is incredible that the regime would want to take a sledge hammer to the NGOs heads now when it needs them so much to supplement its services and is facing so much international criticism over its shocking human rights record. The are several hypothesis that may help explain the regime’s hard line policy as manifested in the so-called “charities” law: 1) Arrogance. They feel so confident in their power that they believe they can kick around the NGOs with impunity. 2) Ignorance. They just don’t understand the power and influence the NGOs have with their home governments. 3) Angst. These guys are really scared and they will lash out at anything they think poses a possible thereat to their tenuous hold on power. They understand the grassroots appeals and power of the NGOs to win the hearts and minds of the masses in such places like Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgistan. 4) Despair. They strike at the NGOs out of desperation. 5) Diversion. By making a big deal about the “law”, they hope to divert attention from the famine that is consuming the population, the economic hardships devastating the people and the illegal war in Somalia. 6) Indifference. They don’t give a damn whether the NGOs help famine victims or the poor; and for all they care, the NGOs can pack up and leave town anytime. 7) Brinksmanship. They want to see how far they can push the NGOs and the donor countries before pulling back.

The Handwriting is on the Wall for NGOs

The handwriting is on the wall for foreign NGOs operating in Ethiopia: “Hear Ye! Hear Ye, NGOs! Under this proclamation, you have one of two choices: 1) pack up and leave the country, or 2) become ‘Gongos’ like the Chinese “non-governmental governmental organizations.” The transparent plan behind the “law” can be appreciated better if we put in the context of the declarations of the “EPDRF” party convention this past September in Hawassa. The party leaders concluded their convention by declaring their “promise” to build a mass political organization. This organization will function in the nature of a “political machine” (under the oversight and guidance of a hierarchical group that controls the party) based on a patronage system. The party organization will undertake not only traditional political activities but also overtake directly areas properly within the service scope of the NGOs. The party leaders promised to provide political training for their 4.5 million members, special training for youth and women, reform of the civil service and justice sectors and expansion of rural development, education and health and other infrastructure related projects to strengthen the party’s acceptance and dominance in society.

Ethiopian “Gongos," Here They come!

International NGOs in Ethiopia should clearly understand that the aim of the “law” is not to facilitate accountability or efficiency in their operation. The “law” is the first concrete step to ban all foreign independent forms of associational life and supplant them with their own civil society and mass organizations. That is the ringing message sent from Hawassa. They want to create their own civil society organizations that will serve as transmission belts from the Party to the masses and make those the only legitimate forms of civil associational life in the country. Since a significant part of international aid passes through the foreign NGOs, the regime aims is to transform these international NGOs into “Gongos” under the control and supervision of the regime’s bureaucratic apparatus. That blueprint comes straight from China. By a process of bureaucratic cooptation, the regime hopes to make the foreign NGOs not only ineffective and frustrated; they also scheme to mold them in their own image and make them advocates on their behalf posing as representatives of citizen groups and civil society sectors.

The Bitten Hand Can Roll Up Into a Fist and Punch Back

Let’s be clear. No international NGO would object to reasonable regulations. In fact, the vast majority of NGOs want reasonable regulations that will enable them to work effectively with the regime and their service recipients. They all want to operate legitimately and within the laws of the host countries. They would welcome accountability. Truth be told, the whole clampdown on NGOs and civil society organizations in Ethiopia is one of the latent effects of the 2005 elections. The regime is still smarting from its miscalculations and defeat in that election. It blames civil society organizations and foreign NGOs for its continuing problems with donor countries and ruined international image. All the talk about closure of “political space” and missed democratic opportunities is misplaced. Political space in Ethiopia closed in May 2005 when the regime stole the elections. Since then NGOs have been struggling to do their work. They have been spinning their wheels and getting nowhere.

The NGOs can fight back as they did in Zaire in 1994. Back then dozens NGOs packed up and left because European and American government food aid was being diverted for military purposes by the genocidal Hutu militias. In Liberia, NGOs agreed to a unified strategy that included denying aid in order to end the periodic looting of relief agency food aid stocks and equipment. NGO representatives testify before the U.S. Congress, the European Parliament and other bodies in the Western countries. They can roll up their fists collectively and punch back. So, NGOs of the world, UNITE! Fight the Power!

The writer, Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. For comments, he can be reached at