Back in 2014, PROJECT-E decided to launch its own project in Ethiopia: a vocational school that would prepare women for work in the hotel industry. More than a year later, the project finally came to fruition. PROJECT-E’s very own Hospitality Institute (PEHI) was established, and the first students to ever attend the Institute had their first lesson. However, transforming the initial idea into reality did not come without major difficulties, which, at times, seemed insurmountable. Apart from the obvious logistical challenges, it was governmental legislative restrictions and a crippling bureaucracy which made the life of the Country Representative and volunteers on the ground near to impossible. Indeed, it took around six months to find the right government officials to sign the necessary papers; to get the necessary official stamps approving the project, and to finally get state recognition. On top of this, the staff would still receive deadlines for reports, accreditation, and renewal of the NGO license by the local authorities. It was as if authorities were not as interested in the results of our work, but more on whether we fulfilled all legislative and bureaucratic criteria.
PROJECT-E was not the only NGO to encounter such difficulties. For the past decade, all Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) operating in Ethiopia have struggled with government restrictions, with many being forced to shut down completely. Things took a significant turn for the worse in 2009, when the former President of Ethiopia Meles Zenawi introduced new legislation to regulate CSOs operating in the country. This law heavily restricted NGO fundraising activities and operations; rendered many of them illegal; imposed stricter requirements for registration (such as asking charities and CSOs to secure a letter of recommendation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs); and introduced the CSA (Charities and Societies Agency). The latter was a government body that had wide powers to deny NGO registration (which it reportedly used quite arbitrarily), and to request a wide range of information from them, so to conduct strict government surveillance on all CSOs operating in the country. As a consequence, the number of registered CSOs in Ethiopia dropped from 3,822 prior to 2009, to 1500 in 2013.
Critics viewed this law as a direct attack on civil society, as part of a broader trend toward political repression and as a denial of fundamental rights to freedom of association and expression. The government, on the other hand, claimed that the legislation had been introduced to ensure greater financial transparency by CSOs, and pointed to the history of Ethiopia’s relationship with civil society as the reason for introducing this law. In fact, since the 1970s, due to recurring political unrest and disastrous famines (which continued to plague the country until the early 2000s), Ethiopia’s history has been inextricably linked to NGOs and foreign aid organizations. These were crucial in raising funds, administering aid and organizing support projects to help save lives and suppress the famines. However, in doing so, a growing power imbalance emerged, with CSOs often having access to, and managing bigger budgets than government agencies. Due to their rising power and influence, NGOs were largely left unchecked, which, in some cases, led to CSOs being exposed as being self-serving and inefficient, yet earning big money. Some NGOs (especially in the 1980s Live Aid era) also had a huge influence over and reputation with donors and the media. This, coupled with their continual fundraising efforts, meant that there was a consistently one-sided portrayal of Ethiopia as a totally helpless, desperate country that needed saving by the Western world.
For whatever the rationale behind the 2009 law, it has made it more difficult for NGOs to operate in Ethiopia for over a decade. However, on March 12, 2019, a more liberal law, the “Organization of Civil Societies Proclamation”, was passed by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government. It is seen as being less restrictive that its predecessor since it allows NGOs more scope for activities and for obtaining funding from abroad. While registration is still mandatory and the CSA will not be disbanded, its power and influence have been curtailed. This law potentially paves the way for a more collaborative relationship between the Ethiopian government and its partners in civil society.