Addis Ababa – Heavily aid-reliant Ethiopia is drafting a bill to provide a legal framework for the activities of foreign aid groups, sparking concern among aid workers and threatening to antagonise creditors.
“We can understand that the Ethiopian government would want to bring in legislation on NGOs to create a proper legal framework and more financial transparency,” said one official representing a donor country.
“But the text in its current form would make it impossible for NGOs to function,” he told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The bill, a copy of which was obtained by AFP, comprises 12 sections and is to be submitted to parliament soon.
According to the draft bill, any NGO drawing on foreign sources for more than 10 percent of its funding will be considered a foreign organisation. The new law would bring several existing local NGOs into that category.
Several humanitarian organisations have drafted a memo highlighting points they deem to be major obstacles to future relief work in Ethiopia and submitted amendments to the authorities.
“We have engaged in discussions to tell the government it is heading for disaster with this bill and that if it is passed we will no longer be in a position to honour all our commitments,” the creditor said, adding that the shortfall could reach one billion dollars.
By strictly prohibiting any interference with internal political affairs, the text would effectively prevent NGOs from pursuing many of their activities with civil society, aid workers argued.
The bill also provides for the creation of a state-controlled agency that would supervise the work of foreign aid organisations.
The provision would effectively allow the state to launch enquiries into any organisation, take part in its staff meetings as well as hire and fire its employees.
Foreign aid agencies have had their run-ins with the regime in Addis Ababa, notably during the deadly aftermath of the 2005 parliamentary elections.
More recently, several international aid groups, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, were expelled from the southern region of Ogaden where the army has been conducting massive operations against rebel groups.
“Discussions are under way with the ministries of justice, finance as well as the prime minister’s office,” a European diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.
During a recent press conference, Finance Minister Ahmed Sufian sought to appease the representatives of the international community.
“This law doesn’t at all mean that we don’t want aid, on the contrary. We are only at the early stages of this law and there are consultations and discussions going on,” he said.
“Our objectives are to set up more transparency and dispatch in the work and activities of the NGOs, to create more responsibility, but for sure not to limit their work,” the minister insisted.
Ethiopia is a large, land-locked and impoverished country in the Horn of Africa. It is also the second most populous nation on the continent and one of the countries in the world which receives the most international aid.
Facing steep inflation and a devastating famine in some parts of the country, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has openly called for international assistance