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Mariusz Kluzniak

NGOs need clearer legal and political frameworks

Michelle Djekić | 18 December 2013

The closing of the German Heinrich Boll Foundation in Ethiopia spurred a new wave of research on developing the legal frameworks and political space for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to operate in periods of crises. The new policy paper urges fresh approaches to donors and intermediary NGOs to help better sustain civil society in contexts of political turbulence.

Restrictive aspects of Ethiopian legislation hampered the core activities of the German foundation. The German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) commissioned research into the narrowing operational space of NGOs, resulting in the July 2013 Policy Paper Series published by the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes (EADI). The paper is co-authored by the International NGO Training and Research Centre (INTRAC) and examines the countries of Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Honduras, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia and Uganda.

NGO crackdown

Ethiopia’s restrictive legislation (2009) continues to prevent work being carried out in human rights and conflict management. Legislative constraints can render it impossible for an NGO to fulfill its mission when engaging in more ‘politically sensitive areas’ rather than service provision in fragile states. The future role of NGOs remains contested since NGOs are finding it increasingly difficult to execute their work across the globe(The Huffington Post). This report serves to highlight ongoing issues related to NGO participation; changing legal frameworks; sustainability; external funding and international community support.

The national constitution of Uganda, for example helps sustain civil society action through proper NGO registration, equal treatment of both local and international NGOs and the removal of legal hurdles to international funding. In turn, the Ethiopian Charities and Societies Proclamation (2009) has been heavily criticized. The proclamation minimizes foreign interference in political affairs and lowers dependence on foreign funds. Amnesty International claims the law hampers CSO activities and fosters a ‘climate of fear.’

The extent and nature of NGO participation at the international level remains a subject of wider debate. Their participation in grassroots consultations, for example, has been questioned since critics have emphasized low levels of citizen involvement and the attendance of ‘usual suspects’ solely according to Saskia Hollander and Cheshta Panday (The Broker).

Legal structures and future prospects

Weakened policy and legal structures, including the lack of an international legally-binding framework to protect civil society, have led to NGOs crackdowns, according to EADI and INTRAC. Increasingly, various other non-state actors [link Alies] have come to exert influence in terms of task performance. The World Economic Forum affirms that the private sector is playing a discernible part in combating ‘societal challenges’ through corporate sustainability. According to the Forum, civil society actors are making rapid progress as conveners, innovators and facilitators alongside service delivery responses and advocacy. It implies that civil society can no longer be dubbed a ‘third sector’ but rather a ‘glue that binds public and private activity together’ to drive broad societal change.

The critical role of NGOs has been enshrined in various internationally declarations i.e. the Busan Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation (November 2011) but barriers to CSO relevancy and accountability are becoming more salient. The New Deal for engagement in fragile states, for example, has raised concerns among civil society. This new deal paradigm places countries in charge of transiting their own way out of fragility, introducing a new innovative approach to peacebuilding and statebuilding. The Center of Peacebuilding (KOFF) of the Swiss Peace Foundation reports that this power shift could be contributing to the shrinking space of NGO involvement, although they can still play a unique role in monitoring/evaluating the implementation process and feeding the awareness-raising agenda.

Photo credit main picture: Mariusz Kluzniak