Closure of the Heinrich Böll Foundation office in Ethiopia

November 21, 2012
Barbara Unmüßig, Steffen Heizmann, Kirsten Maas-Albert, Patrick Berg
For a long time now, Ethiopia has been pursuing an authoritarian development model, but in recent years there has been a further dramatic clampdown on freedoms – of the press, of expression and of assembly. Legislation in 2009 on the role and modus operandi of non-government organizations (NGOs) marked a new low point in terms of political control and restrictions on civil society. The new law effectively prevents work on issues like human rights, democracy, gender or conflict management. Furthermore it applies not only to all international NGOs but also to domestic NGOs that receive more than 10 percent of their budget from abroad. The role of civil society has effectively been reduced to implementing the government’s own development policies. The result is de-politicisation and a culture of self-censorship.

In order not to lose its legal status in Ethiopia, the Heinrich Böll Foundation was initially compelled to register under the new NGO law. But we immediately attempted, as an alternative, to conclude a bilateral agreement with the Ethiopian government in the hope that this would give us more room to manoeuvre and greater scope to support our Ethiopian partners. Despite high-level support from the German government, the talks dragged on over a period of three years. The text of a draft agreement finally tabled by the Ethiopian government in April 2012 confirmed that independent political work would not be possible – even under the terms of a bilateral agreement – and the Heinrich Böll Foundation would remain extremely restricted in its activities. Moreover, current and potential partner organizations would continue to be subject to the NGO law and would therefore not be able to operate in core areas of the Foundation’s work.

Under these circumstances, the Ethiopian office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation cannot, in the foreseeable future, fulfil its mission of promoting democratisation, gender justice and sustainable development. The death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in August 2012 has not changed the situation, as the new government has declared its intention to continue his policies in all areas. The closure of the Foundation’s office in Ethiopia should therefore also be taken as a sign of protest against the ongoing restriction of human rights and democratic development in the country.

This is the introduction to a background paper which briefly describes the political situation and its impact on the work of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. You can download the whole document.