Shortly before Eritrea’s declaration of independence from Ethiopia in May 1993, members of the Eritrean security forces arrived on the doorstep of the Regional Center for Human Rights and Development (RCHRD) in downtown Asmara, the capital. The center’s director knew precisely why they had come — to shut down Eritrea’s first postwar NGO.

With little finesse, the police pushed into the posh, two-story converted residence that served as the center’s office and sealed the filing cabinets, froze the bank accounts and suspended the director’s permission to travel abroad. Though none of the staff went to the media with the story, word spread quickly through the international donor grapevine. Some agencies launched protests. Others stepped back to reexamine their programs. One US funder withdrew from Eritrea altogether. Echoes of the incident still reverberate in the global donor network, fueling the buzz that this liberation movement, like others before it, is not really committed to democracy.

During the following years, other would-be NGOs were closed, though not in such a ham-handed fashion. [1] Government policies also made it unpalatable for international aid agencies to maintain operations in Eritrea, and most packed up and left in 1997. This reinforced the impression that the country was hostile to NGOs and, by inference, to the sort of pluralism associated with Western concepts of “civil society” and hence democracy itself.

Unsurprisingly, Eritrean officials interpreted these events quite differently. They argued that the RCHRD was an institutional anomaly out of sync with the country’s slow but methodical social and political development. Officials’ main complaint was that its appearance at that point in Eritrea’s postwar recovery gave a tiny segment of the urban middle class — and the international funders that rushed in behind it — inordinate influence over the new country’s development. In this view, the center was a transplant without Eritrean roots — a creature of foreign money and alien imagination in a country whose core identity rests upon a tenacious commitment to self-reliance.

Two factors can explain the roots of these prickly attitudes. First, the Eritreans only gained their independence from Ethiopia after winning a 30-year war against successive US- and Soviet-backed regimes while most of the world ignored (or actively opposed) them. Throughout the protracted conflict — Africa’s longest liberation struggle — they relied mainly on captured arms to prosecute the fight and on contributions from their highly organized diaspora to care for the war-affected population. Hence, Eritreans are fiercely committed to maintaining their hard-won independence in all spheres and are wary of any outside intervention, no matter how it is packaged. Second, the institutional vacuum at the end of the war enabled well-funded new NGOs to exercise an economic and social influence out of proportion to their tiny base, while popular organizations with tens of thousands of active members struggled to sustain already existing programs.

Despite the particularity of postwar Eritrea, these issues highlight a broader set of questions about NGOs in any third world society, especially one engaged in such a dramatic transition. Do NGOs promote or retard a people’s capacity for truly self-generated socio-economic and institutional development? Are they a bridge to the grassroots or a toll booth? Does the NGO sector evince an identifiable class and political character distinguishing it as an agent of change in a given society? If so, do NGOs complement other forms of popular organization, or do they constitute alternatives — even rivals — to such organizations? Can the role and character of NGOs be assessed apart from the organizational and political context in which they operate, or should we view them in relation to broader-based membership organizations and social interests — community-based organizations, social movements and political parties, for example — and how they enhance or detract from them? Do we evaluate NGOs according to the success or failure of specific projects, or in terms of their contribution to the attainment of strategic development objectives, such as the promotion of national unity and the consolidation of greater social justice in otherwise fragmented and structurally inequitable postcolonial societies?

The very starkness with which these questions arise in Eritrea suggests answers with wider applicability. But the starting point must be the liberation struggle that brought the current government and the state itself into existence. This established the policy environment into which these issues emerged.

Self-Reliance as an Organizing Principle

“The EPLF’s job is half finished,” said Yemane Gebreab when I met him in his office in September 1994, eight months after the liberation front was restructured as a mass political movement called the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, or PFDJ. As a member of its five-person secretariat, Yemane [2] oversaw an organizing drive that had already drawn in nearly 600,000 people, well over six times the membership of the EPLF in its final years. The question was what to do with them. “Independence didn’t bring the changes in people’s lives that they expected — freedom, social justice, economic well-being. We tell them that this is going to take time and that the only way it can be achieved is if everyone works for it. We want self-reliance to become part of the thinking of every Eritrean.”

“The most vocal sections of the society are the traders and the elite intellectuals, and that’s whose voices are most often heard,” he said. “First, we want to make sure that the vast majority of the population on the periphery has an input, that their voices are heard, too.”

PFDJ organizers convened public forums to orient new members and to urge them to become social and economic actors in their communities. “In the liberation phase, the critical link was the war,” said Yemane. “Unless we won the war, we risked losing everything. At this stage, it is the economy. Unless we develop the economy in a way that does not create social dislocations, we risk losing everything again. So we don’t want the party branches to be places where people just come to talk and talk. I don’t doubt that Eritrea will succeed economically. The challenge is whether we can do this and really have social justice, whether we can maintain our own identity and our core values.”

The initial objective was to train community organizers to take advantage of the government’s new policies and programs — precisely the mission that many NGOs define for themselves. Soon after the PFDJ was launched, the government restructured Eritrea’s internal political boundaries, cutting the number of provinces in half — to six, including the capital — and devolving authority and resources onto the new regions (zobas). Then the Front set out to educate its cadres on the work of each ministry, acquainting them with the new regional offices and urging them to help communities identify their development needs and then go to appropriate representatives for support to situate the initiative for change at the community level. This coincided with the end of postwar relief distributions and a shift to public works programs to replace handouts with jobs, except in the case of severe disability. Ending dependence — as both an economic and a cultural phenomenon — was the central priority.

“We are challenged with a shattered economy, and that has compounded our dependence,” Isaias Afwerki, Eritrea’s acting president, told me. “The last fifty years have decimated everything that could have enabled us to be self-reliant. When it comes to international relationships, we have nothing to offer, and that doesn’t bring about an equal standing…. We would like to reach a stage where we can talk as equals to anyone without asking for assistance — relief or otherwise.” [3]

Relations with potential donor states should be ones of “true partnership,” Isaias told an international development conference several months later. “Symmetry should be the linchpin of this relationship. Donor-recipient relationships based on prescription and dictation of unsuitable antidotes will not do. Our independence of decision should not be encroached upon by conditionalities of aid. This is a fundamental question of dignity which cannot be compromised by temporary necessity.” [4]

Avoiding the chronic dependence that has afflicted most of post-colonial Africa was the issue — along with related problems of corruption and nepotism — that most preoccupied party leaders in the first years of the country’s formal independence. This initially shaped their views of international NGOs and their local counterparts. “The basic lesson from the Eritrean struggle was that we were able to win the war on a very self-reliant basis,” Yemane told the BBC in September 1994. “It’s a lesson that’s very important for the future as well. African peoples, African societies, have to find solutions to the problems that they face. That means coming up with their own economic policies. They must first encourage and release the initiative of the Africans themselves — whether it’s farmers, traders, workers, businesspeople. If we just rely on outside assistance — no matter how long it’s given, no matter how much it is — it cannot solve our problems.” [5]

A month later, the head of the parastatal Eritrean Relief and Refugee Association, Nerayo Teklemichael, announced new restrictions on international and domestic NGOs. Henceforth, religious activity and humanitarian aid work would have to be institutionally distinct — churches, mosques or other religious institutions would be barred from carrying out relief and development programs, though religiously affiliated aid agencies that did not proselytize would be permitted. All international aid agencies, religious or otherwise, would be required to report on their financial operations. Any foreign organization whose operations could not be sustained on less than ten percent of overall spending would be asked to close its office and carry on by remote management, visiting Eritrea to monitor projects but not maintaining an office and residence in the country. There would also be curbs on foreign funding to domestic groups — requirements that Eritrean NGOs raise a significant portion of their funding from local sources to demonstrate that they were in fact “indigenous” organizations and not simply representatives of foreign bodies.

“There is too much dependence on international funders, just as there is too much dependence on food relief,” Nerayo told me after the press conference. “Emergency aid is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it saves lives. On the other, it makes people dependent, and eventually they may be worse off than they would have been without it. We are at a very crucial moment in our history to say: ‘No more aid’. I think it will not be too long when we say: ‘Thank you very much, we are now on our own’.” [6]

In 1996, international aid agencies were told to limit their programming to the fields of education and health. In 1997, restrictions were tightened. Foreign staff who lived in the country for more than 183 days were required to pay the highest income tax rate, 38 percent of their salaries and allowances. At this point, most agencies not only left — they left angry. Eritrean officials later insisted they had not ousted the agencies, but the new rules and the heavy-handed manner in which they were promulgated had the same effect. This cost Eritrea dearly when renewed conflict with Ethiopia brokeout in May-June 1998 as this sector was neither present to witness Ethiopian abuses against Eritrean civilians, of which there were many, nor were they of a mind to represent Eritrea’s complaints on the international stage. But were Eritrea’s political leaders really hostile to NGOs — and by extension to institutional pluralism of any sort — or were they just insisting on too much control over (and a contrary understanding of) the development process in their country?

Fear of ethnic and religious fragmentation and conflict was and remains close to the surface of most discussions of development in Eritrea. Monopolization of political and economic power by small ethnic- or clan-based parties to the exclusion of its rivals has been a recurrent pattern of African rule since decolonization. Widespread popular participation in the political process was the antidote, according to Eritrea’s political leaders. In this view, the country’s new organizations had to be — and be perceived as — broad-based and inclusive so as to build credibility for the institutional structure of the new nation and to promote the development of an open, accountable democratic culture in a country that had had nothing of the sort until now. Powerful NGOs accountable to no one but their donors did not reinforce this inclusive vision, even though they might claim its promotion as their mission. For international NGOs, the issue came back to whether they promoted or obstructed self-reliance. Even their physical presence — manifested in their elaborate entourages, fleets of huge, air-conditioned Land Cruisers and their posh, well-tended villas — gave the neat and orderly but resource-poor capital the look of a charity case.

“We have to work, develop our skills and stand side by side with the rest of the world,”Isaias told a home audience in 1998 during one his periodic public question-and-answer sessions. “If we cannot do this, then we will remain paupers waiting for alms and despairing of the eventual development of our country.” Regarding NGOs, if program and project work could be done by Eritreans, there was no reason to hire foreigners.” NGOs or aid organizations should not be the cause for the weakening of the institutional and human capacity of this country.” [7]

Stepping into a Void

NGOs, foreign as well as domestic, attracted such attention due to the prominent position they occupied in the immediate postwar years, largely because they stood alone. When the shooting stopped in May 1991, after a century of occupation and three decades of war, there were few popular institutions of any kind in Eritrea. When Ethiopia took control of the former Italian colony in the 1950s, Haile Selassie had sharply curtailed the few indigenous institutions then existing. The only exceptions were religious institutions and charities, which were kept under close scrutiny, their leaders mostly handpicked by the local authorities. After a self-described “socialist” military junta seized power in Addis Ababa in 1974, restrictions on Eritrean self-organization were tightened further, as the regime created its own highly centralized sectoral associations and village and neighborhood committees. The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), which led the independence struggle, also launched mass organizations in its liberated zones with underground branches in the areas under the government, but they had been allowed to atrophy in the last years of the fighting as the front put all its resources into achieving a victory on the battlefield. Thus, at war’s end, practically the only institutions in Eritrea not under control of the state or the liberation movement were a few religious bodies — Eritrea’s 3.5 million people are roughly divided between Muslims and Christians — and a handful of weak charitable societies.

Into this void stepped the Regional Center for Human Rights and Development (RCHRD). Its ability to monopolize scant international funding was dazzling, as international agencies leaped at the chance to fund an entity tied neither to the liberation movement nor to the emerging state, which was preoccupied with the transition from resistance to governance. Yet behind this and other new NGOs were only a handful of self-selected individuals, one of whose strengths was a proven skill at connecting with foreign donors. The RCHRD, for example, was the product of a brother and sister team, Paulos and Abeba Tesfagiorgis, both of whom had long associations with the liberation movement. [8] There was one other staff person at the outset — an American who had worked with ERA’s US affiliate during the war. Several prominent Asmara-based professionals, all Eritreans, served on the organization’s board of directors along with a ten-person international advisory board.

The new group proposed to carry out projects in five areas: referendum monitoring, environmental planning, promotion of freedom of expression (setting up their own newspaper), constitutional development and NGO networking. It was an extremely ambitious agenda for such a small group, but the center’s director knew the leading European and North American funders from his years as the link between the donor community and guerrilla-held Eritrea, and he was skilled in preparing proposals. These were the issues at the top of many donors’ priority lists. The response was immediate and enthusiastic. In short order, the center raised over $1 million. A month after they opened their office doors, they hosted an NGO “consultation” that brought together the few small aid agencies and religious organizations registered with the new government to discuss future cooperation. In the event, the occasion served mainly as a brainstorming session for a handful of Eritreans and their international guests, but it catapulted the center into the limelight, even as it signaled the powerful attraction NGOs held for international leaderships overlapped with the EPLF/PFDJ, but they were left to finance themselves and to organize their own funders. A year later, the center was closed down, but Paulos himself was not penalized. Instead, he was appointed to a prominent position on the commission charged with developing the national constitution.

While institutional and personal rivalries played a minor role in the RCHRD’sdemise, the main concerns voiced by officials about undue external influence were soon codified in regulations governing NGOs and other civil institutions. Their central feature was an insistence that these organizations have both a popular constituency and local sources of funding to cover most, if not all, of their operational and administrative expenses in order to demonstrate that they were genuine manifestations of popular sentiment and not “Trojan horses” for foreign interests. Meanwhile, the institutions born during the independence war were undergoing a slow but steady rebirth in new forms and carving out new roles for themselves in Eritrea’s postwar reconstruction. It was these organizations that political leaders lauded as the seeds of Eritrea’s emerging civil society.

Social Movements as NGOs

All the EPLF mass organizations — general unions of women, workers, peasants, youth and students, each set up by the front to support the war effort — were spun off in peacetime as autonomous social movements. Their leaderships overlapped with the EPLF/PEDEJ, but they were left to finance themselves and to organize their own operations and programs. They struggled at first, but by the mid-1990s the unions of women, workers and youth and students had carved out new missions and were deeply involved in the development process. An organizational culture inherited from the liberation struggle initially fostered over-centralization in their internal structures while encouraging hegemonic tendencies toward potential rivals, but they involved large numbers of people in activities and projects often associated with NGOs. All three began to solicit and accept grants from foreign donors, but they relied on membership dues and income-generating projects for their core funding. And, with time and pressure from below,they began to open up to debates and struggles over program and structure. This was especially true of the youth and students, who convened a conference each year for self-evaluation and the airing of differences.

The National Union of Eritrean Women, with 200,000 registered members, is the largest of these associations. With a focus on education, training and service-provision, it has tended to be the least activist, rarely challenging the state or the front in public. But it manages a wide range of skills training, literacy and other self-improvement programs targeted at poor rural women, as well as rural credit schemes and other NGO-type projects, and it routinely monitors and advises other bodies on policies that affect women. At its last congress in December 1999 — an open affair constructed around a series of panels and small discussion groups and open to the public — members called on newly elected leaders to return to grassroots organizing strategies and to put more resources into controversial social issues such as the eradication of female genital mutilation (FGM). Many also called for new forms of self-organization to address the specific needs of women in specialized sectors, such as demobilized fighters.

The National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students, with 130,000 members, male and female from age 16 to 35, is the fastest growing and the most campaign-oriented of the associations and also the most open and transparent in its decision-making and leadership selection. It runs education and training programs, cultural and recreational activities, as well as a rural literacy program and various income-generating projects. It has taken up the challenge of eradicating “harmful traditions,” and it is campaigning against FGM in villages and urban neighborhoods across the country.

The National Confederation of Eritrean Workers (NCEW) set out after the war to organize plant-based trade unions, most in areas that had been under Ethiopian control. It now has 20,000 members and is likely to double that once agreements are reached with the state to organize municipal employees. But the anemic state of the industrial economy, still reeling from the effects of the independence war and badly undercapitalized, constrains its ability to affect the country’s development. Most of its current efforts are directed inward at its own members. Programs include efforts to upgrade skills, train worker leaders in collective bargaining, teach members their rights, develop shop stewards, engage working women more actively in the unions and mobilize rural producers into new cooperatives.

Other self-help associations that have arisen in recent years include an Asmara-based businesswomen’s association (started with help from the NCEW), the Eritrean War Disabled Fighters Association, the Eritrean Women with Disabilities and several smaller groups with charitable orientations. There are also long-standing associations of teachers and nurses, and new associations of doctors and other professionals. Nearly all of the funding for these groups comes from local sources, mainly their members.

NGOs can play a supportive role in Eritrea’s develop- ment as long as they do not seek positions for themselves as initiators and pace-setters, but rather act as bridges to needed resources, skills and experiences to which they have access. Certain international NGOs — Norwegian Church Aid (NCA), the Boston-based Grassroots International and others — have  had little difficulty in this regard. NCA is one of the few international agencies to have maintained an office in Asmara and the only one to have a long-term agreement with the government. It supports agricultural and infrastructure as well as emerging civil society insitutions. Grassroots International has always funded projects from afar, mostly through the popular unions, while periodically visiting Eritrea to discuss old projects and to monitor new ones. Meanwhile, 18 independent (and self-financing) newspapers have appeared in Asmara since 1998, along with a number of new, locally funded NGOs, mostly operating in the spheres of of health and education. Under the circumstances, it seems clear that privately run organizations — NGOs and others — have a future in Eritrea, but it will be one circumscribed by controls on their funding sources.

Organizational “Protectionism”

Eritrea presents a conundrum for many critics: The country exhibits a far higher level of popular participation in its economic, social and political affairs than nearly anywhere else in Africa, but this is not mediated through or managed by institutions the West favors — small, professionally run NGOs and other non-party, as well as non-governmental, organizations. Eritrea’s political leaders propose a development process toward an open, pluralistic society that proceeds through stages of popular mobilization, and they insist on doing it their way.

Their central objective is to reinforce the concept of the citizen over that of narrower (and often competing) social identities — to unify the people even as these new citizens construct and shape the nation itself. They argue that spontaneous organization, artificially enhanced by injections of outside resources, will entrench inherited divisions and inequalities — not only ethnic and religious cleavages but also those of gender and class, as well as simple geography.

NGOs may have roles to play on this stage, but as minor characters, not as leads. In effect, the Eritreans are practicing a form of organizational “protectionism” to foster the growth and development of indigenous institutions before subjecting them to competition from outside forces, much as many countries did in the economic sphere before the onset of globalization. Whether this will work or not — and whether this turns out to be a cover for the continuing control of civil society by a new political elite — remains to be seen, but there are ways to measure the trend.

We are left then, with a question of process, not form: As time passes, do we see more or less popular participation, accountability, transparency and, ultimately, impact from below in the emerging institutional life of Eritrea? If so, it is probably more useful to support it than to critique it on the basis of its adherence to an NGO-based model of civil society that has yet to achieve any observable success on this continent, despite the millions of dollars poured into African NGOs over the past two decades.


A cooperative set up by demobilized women guerrilla fighters, BANA, was stripped of its status as a foreign-funded NGO after a dispute within its board spilled into the local media, but it continued to function as a self-financing business venture.
[2] Eritreans generally use their first names in formal address, as there are no inherited family surnames in the culture.
[3] Interview with the author, Asmara, October 28, 1994.
[4] “Achieving Global Human Security: Eritrea’s View,” presented at the biennial International Development Conference, Washington, DC, January 16, 1995. Reprinted in Eritrea Profile, January 31, 1995.
[5] BBC Focus on Africa, September 9, 1994.
[6] Interview with the author, October 20, 1994.
[7] “Questions from the Public,” Eritrea Profile, Asmara, February 28, 1998.
[8] Paulos headed the Eritrean Relief Association, the only channel for aid to EPLF-held areas of Eritrea, from 1976 to 1990, when he left for health reasons.

How to cite this article:

Dan Connell "The Importance of Self-Reliance," Middle East Report 214 (Spring 2000).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This