The Two-Sector Civil Society in Ethiopia


By Getachew Mequanent, Ottawa, Canada, November 29, 2009

The understanding of civil society lumps together every organization that is not part of a government. This can include organizations of farmers, workers, service providers, educators, environmentalists, human rights activists, students, women, professionals, traders and civil servants. Such organizations mainly work in the following three areas:  lobbying/advocacy, service delivery and self-help (community- or membership-based mobilization).

In developing countries like Ethiopia, you will find a modern civil society sector existing side by side with a traditional civil society sector, just as the formal-informal dichotomy in the economy. Modern civil society organizations are financed by foreign donors and run by professional elites, while traditional civil society organizations are self-financed and run by dedicated volunteers.

In his The Politics of Civil Society: Neo-Liberalism or Social Left (2007), Frederick Powell argues (writing from a Western perspective) that civil society is a product of centuries of moral, intellectual and political debate. The moral and intellectual debate reflected the utopian aspirations of creating a virtuous society that encourages compassion, social justice and voluntarism. This “humanistic” thinking would increasingly be influenced by radical ideas that sought to achieve redistributive justice and political inclusion, with Karl Marx and many leftists after him calling for a radical revolution to overthrow emerging capitalist states. The 20th century Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who witnessed the 1917 violent Russian revolution and two world wars, would call for a peaceful struggle to change state policies with civil society leading the movement.  Indeed, the post-World War II period of the 20th century saw many Western states adopting welfare social policies including the end of racial and class segregation. 


Our interest here is to take up Powell’s point above that civil society in the West evolved out of centuries of social and political struggle guided by altruistic values and the search for social justice and democracy. The question here then is whether the extension of Western civil society to Ethiopia and other developing countries is a viable strategy to develop a vibrant local civil society? Can the satellite organizations of Western NGOs crowded in Addis Ababa evolve and get embedded in society or they simply fed away once global sources of money and organizational support dry up?  What we all may agree on is that the professional elites currently running these organizations would leave for the Ethiopian government and international organizations once donors stop sending money. It is therefore important that these organizations be encouraged and supported to integrate themselves into the Ethiopian society by expanding their membership and simplifying their organizations to do business the cheapest way including recruiting and hiring Ethiopians who are motivated to work for civil society by their altruistic values, not for wages.


Those of us who are familiar with the civil society literature know that global civil society organizations have been leading movements in the fight against marginalization, poverty, political oppression and human rights violations worldwide. Yet, these  organizations have also been criticized on many ground including an over-exaggeration of their legitimacy in representing the poor masses (without involving them) and creating a civil society hierarchy in many countries with rich and powerful organizations (their satellite organizations and partners) concentrated in capital cities and poor and weaker ones crowded in local areas. There are also those who have questioned whether elite-controlled civil society organizations in developing countries are the extension of the global development industry. If you carry out an attitudinal survey in Ethiopia, you may possibly discover that Ethiopians think that civil society elites are likely to be more corrupted than state bureaucrats, only because they live the life of the upper class in society, while the bureaucrats struggle to have ends met, like the rest of the population. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent each year for research, training and organizational support to improve the capacity of civil society organizations to deliver development results. This preoccupation with “organizational capacity building” should not overlook the issue raised above: how to make civil society organizations embedded in the values and history of local society.

In contrast, there are traditional self-help groups in Ethiopian society, which are called mahabers (social networks), idirs (insurance) and iqubs (rotating credits).  Mahabers have existed for many centuries and are deeply rooted in the Ethiopian Christian tradition. And I am sure there are Islamic forms of mahabers. Idirs and iqubs were first started in Addis Ababa during the Italian occupation (by the Guragies people, according to legend) and have been replicated and adapted rapidly across the country. All are organized around the principle of self-help and deeply rooted in the cultural and social heritage and collective experience of the Ethiopian people. They encourage humanism, mutual support, volunteer work, peaceful conflict resolution, cultural pride, civility, social and economic discipline and so on. I once went to my father-in-law’s mahaber to find a diverse crowd which included teachers, merchants, nurses and farmers. The dagna (chair) of that mahaber was a farmer, since this position required wisdome and experience - just as in politics and public administration. Imagine extending such culture and practices to modern civic and political arenas!

In the 1990s, I studied mahabers, idirs and iqubs in Toronto and Ottawa areas created by like-minded Ethiopian immigrants and found them performing the same functions. They could play an import role in restoring our Diaspora community values and traditions which have been weakened by the presence of warring political groups.


In conclusion, it is necessary to assess the state of civil society in Ethiopia and support those organizations that promote humanistic and developmental values in society.  It is possible that the political (lobby/advocacy) civil society would be weakened in the future as the new charity legislation comes to full force. Civil society organizations that deliver services will continue to make a great difference in the lives of poor Ethiopians with improved management and accountability. The huge and diverse civil society sector (consisting of mahabers, idirs and iqubs) will continue to flourish and evolve to meet the changing needs of Ethiopian society.  It is rather interesting that, despite a growing intellectual interest, these organizations have not attracted the attention of decision-makers, such as using them to channel assistance programs to communities It is time to support these grassroots-based civil society organizations, so that they can improve their capacities for playing even more effective developmental roles.