NGO opposes Ethiopia joining EITI

Monday, 17 March, 2014

We wanted to draw to your attention an interesting conflict that highlights some of the difficulties surrounding the push for bona fide transparency across the extractives industries.

At the end of last week, Human Rights Watch (HRW, an NGO and one of the world’s leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights) issued a statement pressuring EITI to reject Ethiopia’s application for membership

For the uninitiated (though there can’t be many reading this site), the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) describes itself as a “global coalition of governments, companies and civil society working together to improve openness and accountable management of revenues from natural resources.” Their purpose is driven by the correct understanding that “[n]atural resources, such as oil, gas, metals and minerals, belong to a country’s citizens. Extraction of these resources can lead to economic growth and social development. However, when poorly managed it has too often lead to corruption and even conflict. More openness around how a country manages its natural resource wealth is necessary to ensure that these resources can benefit all citizens.”

So far so good. However, as Ethiopia wishes to join, and the EITI governing board considers a decision due at its next meeting, on March 18 and 19, HRW issue a warning note. In the words of Lisa Misol, senior business and human rights researcher at HRW: “The Ethiopian government has crushed activist groups and muzzled the media. Ethiopia’s harsh repression of independent voices is utterly incompatible with this global effort to increase public oversight over government.”

Ethiopia has previous to justify this stance: a 2010 application to join EITI was rejected because of a 2009 law (still in effect) curtailing the activity of civil society; representatives of civil society on the Board of EITI concluded that this law fell foul of EITI’s standards on free and active participation of independent organizations in prospective member countries.

So we have the apparently intractable situation of a country wanting to join an initiative encouraging greater transparency, the initiative itself being lobbied by an NGO with a noble record of working for transparency, and heavyweight voices clamouring on both sides of the divide (for example, former UK minister and EITI Chair Clare Short, who wants the board to overturn its 2010 decision).

Both arguments have merit, and where you come down probably depends on where you stand regarding the power of EITI membership to change Ethiopia’s actual behaviour in this regard (the cynic would suggest this is minimal at best), the current health (or otherwise) of civil society in the country, and the validity of Misol’s statement that “EITI would become a reward for Ethiopia’s effort to dismantle and silence civil society, providing a perverse incentive for other governments to do the same thing.”

HRW’s solution is that to join EITI, “Ethiopia should be required to repeal or substantially amend the 2009 proclamation to eliminate problematic clauses that limit foreign funding, restrict certain types of activities, and grant far-reaching powers to a government agency to regulate activities of independent groups, Human Rights Watch said. Additional preconditions should be tied to media freedom and respect for other fundamental rights necessary for open public debate on natural resource topics.”

This is pretty much in line with our own editorial policy and we get fully behind that. But this sorry and continuing morality tale is a stark reminder that the setting up of international initiatives, even with the most noble of constitutions and fully transparent workings, is no panacea. At some point, actual behaviour has to change; and in countries facing governance and capacity issues (and in our view, depending on the capacity in question these are by no means limited to the developing world) this is easier said than done. And at the moment, it’s not even being said. It’s the right path, but it’s a hard one.