A Discussion with Nigussu Legesse, Executive Director/CED and/or Commissioner of the Development and Inter-Church Aid Commission, Ethiopian-Orthodox Church
Background: Nigussu Legesse, Commissioner of the Development and Social Service Commission of the Ethiopian-Orthodox Church, discussed Ethiopia's religious landscape and recent changes in the Ethiopian government's policies towards the operation of NGOs. He spoke about the organization's focus on agricultural production issues at the local level and how he saw land tenure issues & the state technically owns all land in Ethiopia & as one of the most significant reasons for underinvestment in agriculture in the country. Legesse talked about the historical prominence of the Orthodox church in Ethiopia & for much of Ethiopia's history it has been the official state religion.
Interview Conducted on June 21, 2008
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Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you came to your current position?
I am the Executive Director/CEO and/or Commissioner of DICAC, which is the Development and Inter-Church Aid Commission, or the development wing of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. It has just been over five years, since I joined DICAC as head of development programs.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, as you know, is one of the oldest and the largest denominations in Ethiopia if not in Africa, with over 40 million members, about a half million clergy, over 40,000 churches, and 44 dioceses, each headed by an archbishop. It is huge; to take another figure, there are some 6.5 million young people officially registered as members of the Sunday school. It is one of the oldest churches in the world, and has been the state religion in Ethiopia from the fourth Century onwards, up until 1974 when the communists took over power and afterwards.
As to my own background, I have been an agriculturalist and environmentalist all the way and have done many different things. I took my first degree in my country, then two masters degrees and my PhD in Scotland. I worked in rural development, starting right after graduation, for three years, before I went to Scotland for my studies. There, when I finished my degree, I worked for the Scottish Crop Research Institute (SCRI).
After that I worked internationally for some years, beginning with World Vision in Mozambique. While I was in Mozambique, I joined UNDP, and worked there for some time. Then I came back to Ethiopia, and worked for the natural resources institute, which was part of the University of Greenwich, in Ethiopia. The main topic was urban agriculture, and the program was managed through the British Council. I worked for a time for the Italian Development Cooperation as a consultant, and eventually joined the United Nations office for project services, for another three years. And I finally joined DICAC in 2003.
What were your personal research interests? Your own thesis?
I have a broad range of interests, and am generally deeply involved in the areas of environment and agriculture, with special interest in issues of management and leadership in these fields; that is what I mostly do these days. My doctoral work was on seed technology, and my thesis was on seed physiology on grain legumes.
How has your own career linked to faith and international development work and issues? How did you come to join a faith inspired development agency, DICAC?
I always had wanted to contribute to my church, which is the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, but never knew how. I actually had no idea of the huge development programs that the church ran. I saw only the spiritual aspects of the church itself. But when the position with DICAC was advertised, I applied. I was keen to use my experience to combine my interests in my church and in development. I have found that I have been able to contribute, and have found much affection in the organization. The financial benefits, as you can imagine, are not significant, however.
And I am also involved in ecumenical work. I am a member of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC). I am also one of the board directors of Church World Service, a New York based humanitarian organization.
Can you tell us something about the overall environment in Ethiopia for nongovernmental organizations in general and faith institutions more specifically?
Overall, it is not an easy task to bring together the different faiths around any topic, including development, but there are positive experiences. The churches and faiths tend to work rather independently. The Orthodox Church has seen itself often as the largest, if not the only actor, over the years. From our Orthodox tradition, working closely with the Muslim institutions has never been easy in those days. The same is true with the Protestants and the Catholics.
In part because of my international background, working in different cultures and societies, I find that I am particularly open-minded on these issues. My view is that one's belief is one's belief, and no one should question or interfere with my right to my beliefs. There must be some kind of law to protect me in these rights. We from different faiths have so many common interests and work in a similar environment, so there is no reason why we cannot sit around a table and discuss issues of common concern and interests for our people and the nation.
What had you heard about the faith and development pilot effort run by the World Faiths Development Dialogue? What has become of this 1999-2000 initiative?
I knew virtually nothing about the story until Daniel Hailu (currently doing research for WFDD in Ethiopia) briefed me. But it seems to have promoted a positive interfaith development partnership that persists to this day. The Ethiopian Interfaith Forum for Development Dialogue and Action (EIFDDA) is functioning today, and the members are open and friendly, with much hugging when we meet and respect for one another and a very open discussion.
This cooperative spirit also seems to be coming into the minds of our leaders of the various faiths, though it has some way to go. The Patriarch of the Orthodox Church is the chairman of the interfaith group, when they get together. In short, the effort has gone quite a long way but the tangible manifestations are not obvious.
What is the current situation in Ethiopia with respect to relationships between the government and civil society, including faith inspired institutions?
To be honest, it has never been good. There are many different reasons, social and political. The issues are live today because new draft legislation about nongovernmental organizations is under active consideration, which I feel, would greatly affect the work of civil society organizations.
A key provision of the draft law is that nongovernmental organizations, including those linked to faith organizations, which receive more than 10 % of their funding from overseas could not be considered local; they will be subject to a regime that applies to international NGOs. That has many implications. They would never be allowed to work on advocacy issues, including human rights, peace building, governance, rights based approaches, justice, community development, voters education, etc . If they do so, they could be taken to court, and the government would have the right to close their offices immediately. A new regulating body (agency) is to be established very soon. Organizations will have only 12 months to register as either national or international. I am concerned as to whether we really could operate under the new proposed regime (law).
There have been a few briefings about the new legislation, the first one with the Minister of Justice, a responsible government body for overseeing NGO operations in the country and a couple of them with the Prime Minister, at the request of civil society organizations. He clearly indicated that it is the government position to go ahead with the new legislation. There are over 3300 NGOs in Ethiopia now. In this briefing with the Prime minister, the Holy Synod of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church assigned four arch bishops to attend the briefing along with myself. After the briefing by the Prime Minister, we realized that the government is serious about the draft and wanted to go ahead with it sooner than later, the church made a couple of consultation among members of the synod, the board and prominent members of the church. This meeting was convened by His Holiness, the Patriarch. A letter from him to the Prime Minister has been drafted. It makes the argument that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church cannot and should not be considered in this light, that it is obviously national. But we do not know how far this argument will take us. There has been a postponement of consideration by the Parliament of the legislation to September following the request from the Civil Society Organizations.
Of special importance is the proposed regulatory agency. All organizations would need to submit reports, accounts, etc. to it. It would have excessive and broad powers, including the power to remove the director of an NGO and name a replacement. The proposals are very disappointing and discouraging, and give too much power to the agency.
How would the legislation affect religiously inspired or linked institutions? Is religion explicitly addressed in the draft law?
In the draft it appears that all religious institutions would be considered societies, thus subject to the law, which covers both societies and charities. During the first formal briefing about the proposed new regime, by the Minister of Justice, who would have primary responsibility for implementation. He said at the briefing (attended by one of my staff members) that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church would be considered under the law to be a society, meaning that it would be covered by the law's provisions. Thus the government could get involved, anytime, through the agency staff or even police to watch on their meetings and other activities. Those who were present at that briefing by the Minister were rather shocked.
I was not at the briefing myself, as I was attending an important donor meeting, but when I heard the report of what was said, I went to a meeting of the Orthodox Church Synod and recounted what I had been told about the proposed new legal regime. There was uproar among the bishops, who agreed that something needed to be done. There was a meeting where the Prime Minister planned to address the law and four senior archbishops (mentioned above) went to the meeting to listen to what the Prime Minister had to say, and to see if the reports were correct. When the Prime Minister saw the archbishops there, he addressed the question of how the legislation would affect the Church. His statement there was that the legislation was never intended to cover religion. Religion and development were quite separate. But if the Church had a development organization, then that organization would indeed be governed by the law. Religious organizations are to be free to operate but development falls under the new regime even if it is done by religious organizations.
Can you tell us a bit more what DICAC does in the development field?
We are a large multisectoral organization with many activities. Particularly significant among them is food security work. We have nine large projects throughout the country. We are also working in the area of environment and agriculture, with small scale irrigation schemes and other activities. We do a great deal of work on water supply and sanitation; there are 12 distinct projects in this field. And we are very active in HIV/AIDS prevention and control. DICAC is a major recipient of PEPFAR funding (US Government HIV/AIDS program), with projects of some $8 million, now underway, and others committed but with the funds still to come. We have been awarded, with other faith groups, a large grand from the Global Fund for AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis, under Round Seven. We also work with the Population Council, UNFPA, Geneva Global, and other organizations. Our programs include initiatives on safe marriage and efforts to change harmful traditional practices, gender and development, peace building and conflict transformation. We also have a huge refugee support program in which we provide services including education, health and provision of subsistence allowance for the refugee community under our care.
DICAC is very active in support to refugees. We work with many groups, including Sudanese and Eritreans. Another important area of our agenda is peace building and conflict transformation and also Gender and Development. In short, we are involved in many activities.
Can you give a general indication of DICAC's size?
We have about 520 staff members, with our head office in Addis Abeba, and our budget is about US$6 million a year, not counting expected new funds and programs.
What about education? How far are you involved?
We are mainly involved through our integrated rural development programs, which include both schools and health centers, but it is not a separate or major initiative.
There is always, though, a push for education, as churches have historically always been a major source of education.
The same would apply for conservation and indigenous forests. There is a long tradition of protection of indigenous trees by local faith based institutions.
DICAC tends to work in these areas quite closely with local authorities and development agencies. For example, on veterinary posts which are run by local authorities we hand over the medicines which are then handled by the local government entities.
How does DICAC interact with government authorities and donors on policy issues and overall development strategy? Are you, for example, much involved in the PRSP (Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper)?
We tend to engage mainly on specific issues and often at the local level. For example, we are involved in production discussions, in the context of food security, and through our integrated development work we are very much involved with regional governments. The same applies for water issues and programs. There is considerable planning at the local and regional level and the authorities seek data from us. So we are part of the parts but not necessarily in the overall process and reflection.
To my mind, there is a definite missing link here. There are important policies and issues which are real obstacles to development and which cannot be addressed or changed. The most important may be land policy. These issues are critical in various ways. The central issue is the absence of private ownership. All land belongs to the state so those who use the land are just tenants. However, in order to overcome these concerns, the regional governments recently started issuing certificates of user rights to the tenants or farmers who use the land. Even this doesn't seem to satisfy the farmers as they can be evicted anytime from the land they are using if a private investor wants the land. The previous government nationalized all land, and that is the way things remained. With no privatization, there is no security of tenure and therefore little to no investment. In the rural areas, there is little improvement in productivity, and virtually no incentive to conserve or protect the land.
A related issue is large family size. Families may well have at least five children (an average figure for an Ethiopian family). They tend to keep the children out of school or send only one child to school so the children can help work the land. But that family holding will be subdivided among the children. So a one acre plot becomes half an acre and smaller and smaller. People are reluctant to leave the land because they fear they will lose it, and they cannot sell it. Investors cannot buy land to invest and farm on a significant scale.
This regime has many implications for agricultural policy. And the problem is that the regime is basically untouchable. There are problems both for farmers who are not happy and investors who have many concerns. Land is becoming ever more fragmented and productivity overall is not increasing.
Do you feel you have any voice as to how the policies evolve?
No. We have tried to raise these and similar issues at various occasions. However, no attention has been paid to such issues of our concern. The government has been quite clear about the land issue. And that is that the current policy will not change as far as the current government is in power. That does not leave much room for say or dialogue. So the prospect for now is that land policy will stay pretty much the same. Even the Church, which has been here for years, has little voice on these matters.
But there is another issue which applies pretty much to all the major faith traditions, which is that they tend to be reticent about voicing their views on policy issues, and may be quite internally divided. My Church has been hesitant to express different views towards the government position. Much the same is true for the Muslims. The Protestants have their own internal problems, which makes it difficult for them to disassociate themselves from the government. The Catholics are in a somewhat better position and are more ready to speak out but they represent only about 1% of the population, so they are not really very significant.
Are the activities of different faith institutions in development distinct and are there major differences of view on overall strategy?
There is considerable agreement among the different faith communities, including the Muslims, and activities are not very different. The Muslims are very much involved in HIV/AIDS, as are most faith organizations. The Catholics focus mostly on education and health. The Protestants tend to focus on health, environmental protection programs and relief.
How active are you or other faith institutions in the area of microcredit?
No one is really working much in that area. There have been efforts, including through the World Council of Churches, with some negotiated funding from the Ecumenical Church Loan Fund (ECLOF) in Geneva, but there are particular difficulties. Among these are the activities of regional government entities. They have their own lending mechanisms, and are not enthusiastic about seeing others getting involved. They benefit from their lending activities to the poor. So even though we think that lending to the poor, on better terms, is important, it is simply not possible, even in very poor areas. There have been some feasibility studies for different regions but we have not been able to act on them.
You have highlighted the importance of HIV/AIDS work. Is there agreement among faith institutions on strategy issues? Between faith institutions and government and donor agencies?
There are some difficulties here. None of the faith based organizations, none of us, mention condoms or actively promote their use. In the ABC (Abstinence, Be Faithful, Condoms) strategy, we all tend to work on A and B. But in practice the policy is above all for churches to keep quiet about condoms, and just not to talk about the issue. We find that if we do, we are accused by the media from all sides, whether by the current American government, with its backing from conservative churches, of going too far, or by others for having no feeling for people suffering from HIV/AIDS by withholding condoms.
How much are you involved in contentious cultural issues, like child marriage and gender relations?
The Orthodox Church is strongly involved in such issues, especially in northern Ethiopia where early marriage is quite common, with girls often married at nine or ten years of age. These are Orthodox dominated areas, and we are seeing some good results, using school clubs, and sensitization programs, and working with and through the bishops. The bishops are also involved in promoting HIV/AIDS rallies in their dioceses. That is why Ethiopia and the Orthodox Church have a good reputation on the issue, because our programs are increasingly effective, and we are rewarded with large new programs. We are somewhat concerned, though, by the American government position and by what will happen when President Bush leaves office, as he and his administration have taken such specific positions. So for the time being the position is rather delicate.
What issues would you like to see discussed at the Hague consultation?
The issues you mention all seem important. I am particularly struck, including from my own experience, by how little is really known about the work of faith inspired organizations. Information and public relations have special importance. So does monitoring and evaluation and the set of issues around accountability. Faith institutions could indeed be much more active on the issue of corruption. Not surprisingly, I give special importance to action in the area of environment where there is so much to do.