The Role of Civil Society in Ethiopia’s Current Crisis: Who will make the first move?

By The Strathink Editorial Team

 Introduction: Civil Society in America’s 220-year-Old Democracy

On January 20th, America once again re-enacted the peaceful transition of power—a political transition that has continued unbroken since 1797. President Obama, a Democrat, sat with former Presidents Carter (Democratic), Clinton (Democrat) and Bush (Republican) while the new president (Republican) was sworn in to uphold the U.S. Constitution—a document laying out the framework and basic principles of government, whether led by a Republican or Democrat, that has held up since 1787, not without its problems.


On the very next day, hundreds of thousands of people, mostly women, who opposed the new president gathered at the nation’s capital and in cities across the nation to challenge his intentions to dismantle current foreign policy, health policy, education policy, and environmental policy—to name a few. There was no violence and their demands were clearly articulated. They raised their voices in protest and were heard—maybe not by the new President but certainly everyone watching the massive crowds being broadcast worldwide.

And on January 22nd, the republic, although fractured, stayed standing.

American democracy is still an experiment. The U.S. Constitution has been amended 27 times, adapting to a changing America that, at one time, only bestowed its rights, and privileges to a small segment of the American people—white men over 21 who owned property. Today, America is still struggling to reach the lofty goals so elegantly expressed by the original framers of the Constitution to form a more perfect union and to secure the blessings of liberty for our posterity—and not without great cost. The United States has suffered through centuries of slavery, a crippling civil war, Jim Crow and segregation, the Civil Rights era, the Viet Nam war, and the war against terror.

The republic, although fractured, stayed standing.

Democracy is messy. Democracy is often two steps forward and one step backward. There is an ebb and flow of success and failure that marks each generation’s efforts to do better, to be better. For some, the rise of an ideologue demonstrates the worst of America. Others prefer to focus on the hundreds of thousands who marched the next day proclaiming a collective vision that celebrated diversity, equality and tolerance. Democratic pluralism allows the Hegelian dialectic to play itself out in the political arena where thesis and antithesis collide to a cascade of synthesis.

For some 220 years, the United States has been experimenting with democracy and the results are still mixed. There are winners and there are losers. There are many more people politically enfranchised than, say, fifty years ago, yet equality and justice for all remains unfinished.

What is real, however, is the unyielding notion of “the people.” Despite all the setbacks to achieving a more perfect union, the idea of a contract between those who govern and those who are governed is real.

In America, “civil society” is a key political actor that cannot be ignored or taken for granted. It may not have the power that comes from the money of corporate America, but it has power—as a voting bloc, as an interest group and as a voice. Part of its power is derided from its complicity in governance. American civil society views itself as an integral part of the governance process. It is a participant, not an observer.

What are the lessons of this 220 years experiment in democracy for a country like Ethiopia?

Civil Society in Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s long history of monarchical feudal rule followed by a doctrinaire military authoritarian government left little room for the development of civil society. Indeed, by 1991 when the current government took control, the few civil society organizations that were allowed to take root under the monarchy had been decimated under the military regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam. Professional associations, trade unions, the media, academia, and the private business sector, fledgling at best during the emperor’s time, were practically dead. The majority of NGOs operating in Ethiopia were international, humanitarian and barely tolerated but for the political expediency of stemming the tide of the dying. Other national NGOs operated outside the formal system as humanitarian arms of opposition movements.

In 1991, political space opened up under the newly installed EPRDF-led government and civil society groups began to significantly expand. By 2000, there were 310 national NGOs registered. [1]

In 2009, the Ethiopian government enacted the Charities and Society Proclamation Act (CSO law) to regulate domestic and international civil society organizations (CSOs). There was an enormous and outsized response from the international community denouncing the law, despite the fact that every other country has laws governing the NGO sector.

The Strathink Editorial team thinks the law was written sloppily and rolled out clumsily. However, every country must be able to regulate the NGO sector. In the United States, for example, non-profits are regulated by the Internal Revenue Service and are subject to a myriad of rules and restrictions—such as engaging in political activity. Every year, a non-profit must fill out a special form to account for all the money received in donations and what was done with the money. This form is available to the public.

According to Human Rights Watch, “The [CSO] law is ostensibly a tool for enhancing the transparency and accountability of civil society organizations. But in fact, its provisions would create a complex web of arbitrary restrictions on the work civil society groups can engage in, onerous bureaucratic hurdles, draconian criminal penalties, and intrusive powers of surveillance.”

The most controversial regulation under the law was the 10% rule—if national NGOs received more than 10% of their funding from foreign donors, than the government considered the NGO an international NGO. The logic was that funding drives agendas. If a national NGO was securing the bulk of its funding through a foreign donor, than the agenda was being driven by that donor.

The hue and cry that emerged from the international community was that this law would cause the demise of both international and national NGOs in Ethiopia. In 2009, there were 2,275 national NGOs, which included 2,000 NGOs across sectors, 150 professional organizations and 125 civic advocacy organizations. In 2011, following the enactment of the CSO law, there were 1,701 NGOs across sectors, 110 Ethiopian charities (includes human right organizations), 261 Ethiopian societies, 1270 resident charities (including human rights and civic society organizations), and 60 Ethiopian resident societies.

The net difference of 574 included, what Dupuy, Ron and Prakash[2] call “briefcase NGOs”—an NGO that exists, metaphorically or literally, inside a briefcase. It may have well-written proposals and access to western donors but for one reason or another, any funding it receives for programs goes into the pockets of those running the NGO. In 2011, there were four fewer NGOs. The number of NGO consortiums increased from 12 in 2009 to 34 in 2011. According to the authors of the report, “many briefcase and single-issue-issue human rights groups closed down, while international NGOs and multiple-issue national NGOs largely survived.”[3]

So, here we are. The intense and sustained uproar over the CSO law that still dominates international discourse on Ethiopian politics is simply a red herring—both misleading and distracting. The discourse needs to shift to strengthening civil society not through foreign funding that serves foreign agendas, but rather creating an organic civil society that plays a pivotal role in the governance process.

A Roadmap for Civil Society Leaders

  1. Civil society must recognize the legitimacy of the government in order to effect real change.

Ethiopia’s modern civil society emerged during a feudal monarchy and the doctrinaire Mengistu regime. Civil society organizations such as trade unions, farmers groups, and student organizations, to name a few, were united in their single-issue agenda to overthrow the government. Today’s CSOs are preoccupied with the same agenda, but at what cost?

What has Ethiopia’s civil society added to the democratic process other than an opposing voice?

The EPRDF-led government is neither a monarchy nor a repressive military regime. Is it democratic? Yes and no. It is a government that is on the path towards democracy but experiencing the ebb and flow of success and failure characteristic of any aspiring democracy—or even 220 year old democracies.

The case for fundamental reform in today’s Ethiopia is indisputable—corruption, inefficiency, and marginalization are poisoning Ethiopia’s emerging democracy and the extraordinary gains made during the past 25 years are at risk of being eroded. The state of emergency is a stopgap measure that buys time for the entrenchment of reform. In order to move forward in a democracy, civil society must be front and center in the process.

Today’s civil society organizations are mired in a political climate monopolized by a single-issue opposition bent on replacing the current government—but with what? And why would the Ethiopian people want to start over with a new political system? The current system has its weaknesses but it is a system that has been built from the ground up over just 25 years. Like America’s 220-year-old democracy, the system needs a constant upgrade to correct mistakes and adapt to a changing world. The Ethiopian government needs reform not replacement. There is a great of positives in a system that has taken the country out of the sinkhole created under the monarchy and military authoritarianism to where it is today.

  1. Civil society organizations should promote their interest-driven agendas.

So, let’s assume the government should stay in place. What then, should civil society do to speed up and sustain the reform process? Strathink believes that civil society leaders should pivot their efforts from undermining the legitimacy of the government to demanding reform. The way to do this is to develop an organizational agenda based on the interests of its members—attack policies and not personalities or ethnicity. In other words, civil society organizations should work to replace any policy that has a negative impact on their members.

Groups organized around educational issues, such as the teachers union, should demand policies that better align with their interests. What do people in the educational sector think about the language policy of instruction? Are policies in place that adequately address the critical need for more girls in secondary and tertiary schools? Teacher salaries in government schools surely must be a problem that requires sustained and effectual advocacy.

Land policy is a paramount issue driving the recent disturbances yet, other than expressing dissatisfaction with current policy; it is difficult to understand what the people want as an alternative. While the government is working to institutionalize “think tanks” as part of a more data-driven approach to formulating policy, where are the independent think tanks that conduct studies and propose policies that fix problems?

Ethiopian elites in the opposition have the intellectual resources to engage in a process that translates opposition to the government to empirically based policy alternatives that solve problems. In an ironic twist, Berhanu Nega, leader of the 200-man Ginbot 7 army based in Asmara, could have played a much more meaningful role in the country when he was leading the Ethiopian Economic Policy Research Institute. Unfortunately, he chose the gun—or 200 of them—over statistics in his bid for self-aggrandizement. Statistics would have been a more successful weapon.

One of the problems with Ethiopian opposition groups and CSOs is the absence of a clearly articulated platform of ideas—being anti-government is simply not enough. What particular policy is being challenged? What is the alternative policy being proposed? If the people feel underserved by the government’s land policy, than what is the alternative—clearly articulated, with principles, guidelines, objective and metrics. This is the basis of governance—not a sweeping denunciation of “the government” couched in vague oppositional terms with no specifics.

Governance is a daily process across public sectors and administrative units that involves identifying a problem; setting an agenda; working across bureaucratic channels to develop a policy; creating a budget; implementation; and finally, evaluation. It is a deliberative process that is data-driven on various levels such as people affected, available resources, and opportunity costs.

Interest groups need to do the work of developing data-driven policy alternatives that better serve the interests of its members. Facts are helpful. Let’s say it again. Facts are helpful.

3. Civil society groups should establish ties to political parties and the state, but they must retain their independence.

Civil society organizations should not seek political power for themselves. This does not mean that leaders within civil society should not seek public office. In fact, civil society organizations can be training grounds for new leaders. This also means that CSOs should practice the principles of a democratic process: transparency, accountability, and robust participation, to name a few.

What becomes messy is when CSOs become so entrenched in party politics that there is no distinction between the CSO and the party or, conversely, the CSO and the state.

Independence from both the state and political parties is a hallmark of an effective civil society organization. This does not all preclude a partnership with the state or a political party to achieve a shared objective that is beneficial to civil society at large. For example, civic education preceding an election benefits all parties engaged in the process—the state, the party and the people. In this instance, the CSO should not align with either the party or the state. The CSOs should serve the interests of the democratic process by providing information about the rights and responsibilities of voting; objective presentations of the policy platforms being promoted by the various parties; and any kind of information that creates a population of informed voters.

The tensions between the current government and CSOs are driven largely by the absence of boundaries between CSOs supported either the majority party (EPRDF) or the opposition parties, as well as those whose funding comes mainly from foreign entities that promote foreign agendas.

Ethiopia’s civil society organizations need to separate from the parties and operate independently. This does not mean that groups should not forge partnerships with the state or political parties on interests that support their members. For example, development activities, whether sponsored by the state or the party, need the support of civil society in order to maximize their benefits. CSOs can play a supportive role without compromising their independence.

Best practices of engaging with state or party actors include the following:

  • Engaging right from the beginning
  • Thinking about who needs to be engaged and potential barriers
  • Working on issues of shared priorities
  • Identifying and working with reform champions in the government.
  • Adapting a soft advocacy approach with emphasis on regular dialogue
  • Focusing capacity development efforts on both CSOs and public officials
  • Engaging in evidence-based rather than ideology-based advocacy
  • Getting involved in the official working groups for multi-stakeholder dialogue
  • Being ready to change approaches and tactics for engagement in light of experiences and results
  1. Civil society should educate the people by providing factual information on all aspects of governance and citizenship: democratic rights and responsibilities, transparency, accountability, political participation etc.

 Civil society organizations should play a key role in providing information to the public about how to live in a democratic society. CSOs can strengthen the social contract between the state and the people by informing citizens about their rights and responsibilities. By disseminating information about democratic principles and ideas, the public will become more informed citizens and committed to the democratic process. A robust civil society strengthens citizens’ respect for the state and promotes a more positive engagement.

Let’s look at corruption. The government alone cannot fight corruption if the public continues to expect paying a bribe for public services that should be provided to them. The public must engage in the fight against corruption alongside the government in a united front. Civil society organizations can play a watchdog role by providing services to the people in the form of information about their rights to public services. It takes two parties to engage in corruption.

 Changing Ethiopia’s Political Culture

 Creating a new political culture in Ethiopia that can help advance its nascent democracy is not easy. Centuries of authoritarian rule, a feudal legacy, ethnic tensions, and extreme income inequality are just a few of the immensely significant factors standing in the way of creating a democratic political culture that can move the country forward. For both the government and civil society, breaking the current impasse between the state and civil society will not happen overnight and take tremendous efforts from leadership across the public and private sectors.


How does this process begin? The Strathink editorial team does not have the answer to this question. Indeed, it would be arrogant on our part to assume to understand how to change a political culture that defines a country of 100 million people. What we can offer is one idea—create awareness among government leaders and civil society leaders that the status quo must change. A genuine dialogue between state and civil societies leaders is possible. We note the extraordinary conversations that took place on public platforms between the state and the political party leaders preceding the 2005 elections.

Ethiopia is a country with exceptional leaders—thinkers and doers—from across the political spectrum and civil society. The majority of leaders, however, have entrenched themselves in one thing and one thing only—either maintaining power or seizing power. We understand that the state, by its very nature, is programmed to ensure its survival. Civil society organizations, in the current political culture, seemed to be programmed to challenge the very existence of the government and operate as proxies to political organizations.

The result has been a prolonged impasse of resistance with zero net gain.

Ethiopia cannot reach its full potential without a renegotiation of the relationship between state and civil society. This begins with a clear recognition of the symbiosis between the government and the Ethiopian people.

Who will make the first move?

[1] Jeffrey Clark, Civil Society, NGOs and Development in Ethiopia (World Bank: 2000)

[2] “Who survived? Ethiopia’s regulatory crackdown on foreign-funded NGOs,” Kendra E. Dupuy, James Ron and Aseem Prakash (Review of African Political Economy, 2014).

[3] Ibid, p. 13.

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