How do you change the norms of a country for the better? Do you exclude the country as a form of punishment and wait for it to change or do you embrace it in the hope and anticipation that your influence will help the country ‘see the light’?
That is the situation that the board of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) faced this week as it deliberated whether to accept Ethiopia, a country long criticised for its attitude towards civil society freedoms, as a candidate member.
The EITI is a global initiative to encourage governments to better manage natural resource revenues. A government must apply to join the initiative and, if accepted by the board, the government commits to the implementation of the EITI Standard. The Standard contains a set of requirements aimed at ensuring full disclosure of oil, gas and mining companies’ taxes and other payments made to the government.
The unique selling point of the EITI is that it operates as a coalition of governments, companies and civil society. All three are represented on the EITI board and all three must be represented within the national multi-stakeholder group, the group that oversees the national EITI implementation process.
Civil society members, including EITI board members, argued that a country that curtails - and in some cases imprisons- members of its own civil society should not be allowed to clear the first hurdle in the long journey toward full EITI membership.
While it would be wrong to say that the civil society protestations fell on deaf ears - they were certainly acknowledged by the board - they did not have the hoped-for effect. On Wednesday, the EITI board confirmed Ethiopia as a candidate country for full EITI membership.
Human Rights Watch issued a scathing statement soon afterwards:
“The EITI’s decision to admit Ethiopia without insisting on reforms is an affront to the local activists who have been jailed or exiled for calling for a more transparent, accountable government,” Lisa Misol, senior business and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch said.
“With this decision, EITI has thrown its principles to the wind and damaged its reputation as a leading good governance group,” she said.
“EITI’s leadership had an opportunity to stand up for the core principle that civil society participation is a linchpin of good governance,” Misol stated. “Instead, it sacrificed EITI’s credibility by allowing Ethiopia to join the ‘transparency’ club despite intense repression.”
Ethiopia had applied for EITI candidate status in 2010 but was rebuffed by the EITI board. The minutes from the March 2010 board meeting note that the board discussed the fact that Ethiopia had passed a law called the ‘Proclamation on Charities and Society’ that would likely restrict the freedoms of Ethiopian civil society engaged in the EITI process.
“No final decision on Ethiopia’s Candidate application was taken, and the decision was deferred, in effect, until the Proclamation on Charities and Society is no longer in place,” the minutes say.
To all intents and purposes, Ethiopia was blacklisted for human rights reasons.
So what has changed in those intervening four years? Certainly not the Proclamation on Charities and Society law - that has remained steadfastly in place. Perhaps the biggest change has come in the form of new leadership on the EITI board. In March 2011 Clare Short, former UK international development minister, was elected chair of the board replacing Peter Eigen, the founder of the campaign group Transparency International. In other words, a civil society activist, albeit a former World Bank official, was replaced by a former politician.
Earlier this month, before the board meeting, Short wrote an open letter to the three African civil society activists on the EITI board who had actively campaigned to have Ethopia’s EITI application blocked.
“The issue of civil society space to enable the EITI to do its work is absolutely critical but EITI is not a human rights standard,” Short wrote.
The EITI provides a platform for civil society to have a voice in countries where it might otherwise be restricted, she said.
But “wider human rights issues are the responsibility of other organisations and we should never forget that social and economic rights are an equal part of human rights alongside civil and political rights,” she added.
The difference in the influence of human rights concerns on a board led by the world’s biggest anti-corruption NGO and on a board led by a former politician is notable. While a campaigner’s first instinct may be to close ranks and look after fellow activists, the politician is more willing to play the long game and reach deals for what they consider to be the greater good.
As the statement from Human Rights Watch shows, campaigners are furious that an initiative that they played a critical part in setting up has so visibly gone against their interests. Given that transparency activists have achieved so much success of late in pushing governments to enact national extractive transparency laws, it remains to be seen whether the EITI will remain a priority.