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Networking in the Horn of Africa

Renee Storteboom discusses the non-governmental organizations of the Horn of Africa and their potential.

The author is Programme Coordinator with the NGO Networking Service, a project of the InterAfrica Group, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Environmental action in the Horn of Africa is woefully under-covered. There is a simple reason for that: there is little to report.

In general, the governments and civil society of the countries of the Horn – Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan – are preoccupied with conflict and its impacts (for example, refugees and internally displaced persons), poverty, rural development and statelessness. Specifically, on the issue of climate change, these countries are doing as much as many industrialized countries are – very nearly nothing. In the Horn of Africa, climate is weather, more specifically it is rain: when will the rain come and how long will it last?

Climate change and the international debate around the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change are simply not on the agenda of either governments or non-governmental organizations in the sub-region.

The international non-governmental organizations operating in the Horn that may be engaged, from headquarters, in international advocacy around climate have not mobilized or transmitted this agenda to the local organizations with whom they fund or work or to the communities within which they operate.

Local organizations, even among the handful dedicated to environmental issues, are preoccupied with the salient issues of the sub-region. One local environmental organization, LEM-Ethiopia, reprinted an article on the basics of the climate debate in its newsletter. Beyond that, LEM concentrates on public education and high school science clubs and issues that are more immediate to Ethiopia.

Even more broadly, environmental issues are not a priority on the agenda of sub-regional governments. One governmental official is said to have exclaimed to a local journalist that environmental concern was a luxury that could not yet be afforded... “when we have reached a higher stage of development, we can think of such things.”

This is not to say that sustainable development and environmental issues are completely absent from the scene. Indeed, sustainable development is of critical interest to governments and local and international non-governmental organization development practitioners. The concerns are concentrated in specific areas, some are country specific and some cut across the region, such as:

  • desertification;
  • water resources;
  • agriculture and pastoralism;
  • deforestation;
  • biodiversity; and,
  • urban development.

New initiatives to heighten media awareness of environment matters in Ethiopia have met with mixed success. The Consortium for Development, a multi-disciplinary, multi-sector group and the private media company, DENAPH, have launched roundtable discussions and workshops. DENAPH also works with the Forum for Environment.

The Forum for Environment is a group of concerned individuals and organizations, including academics, non-governmental organizations and others. It is intended for extension workers, community development workers, health workers, teachers, local officials and media people working in the different regions of Ethiopia. The main intent of the Forum for Environment is to be a tool for advocacy and reflection on the Ethiopian environment and sustainable development. The Forum produces AKIRMA (a kind of grass), a magazine published largely in Amharic, the national language. An early validating success for AKIRMA has been an exchange of opinions between farmers in different areas of the country.

However, recently, the second of a planned series of media workshops on environmental issues demonstrated how much work needs to be done. The journalists in attendance hardly knew what questions to ask. This may be as much an issue of the professional private press in Ethiopia as it is of environmental knowledge, which leads to yet another point: that issues of environment cannot be separated from the pressing issues and other development concerns of the sub-region.

A hopeful sign in the Horn is the slowly emerging culture of networking that has been missing up to now.

The growing number of non-governmental organizations and the increased communication among them, at national and regional levels, is an encouraging sign. Networking and collaboration among civil society leaders around local, regional and international issues is on the rise.

The number of indigenous non-governmental organizations, civil society groups and networks has risen in the 1990s for a number of reasons.

In Somalia and Somaliland, the absence of a central state and the growing fatigue of the population with ongoing conflict has given rise to community organizations, non-governmental organizations and networks. In Hargeisa, Somaliland, alone, there are an estimated 500 non-governmental organizations. The Peace and Human Rights Network, based in Mogadishu, has a wide-ranging network of members throughout southern Somalia. Women’s networks are also on the increase in Somalia.

In Ethiopia, people are astonished to learn that there are over 300 international and local non-governmental organizations operating in the country. While this seems a small number compared to other African countries, it is actually an amazing increase, considering the strict definition of non-governmental organization in the country and the regulations for operation.

Eritrea remains a void in terms of non-governmental action, but this, too, is changing, as the government recently reversed decisions about allowing international institutions, such as the United Nations, and international non-governmental organizations to operate in the country.

Eritrea remains a void in terms of non-governmental action, but this, too, is changing, as the government recently reversed decisions about allowing international institutions, such as the United Nations, and international non-governmental organizations to operate in the country.

Sudan’s non-governmental organization community is split between those operating out of Khartoum and those operating in the south of the country and largely based in Nairobi, Kenya. There is little animus it seems, though, among the two non-governmental organization communities.

Djibouti has over 200 registered, but only a dozen or so that are operational. It is important to note the importance of associational life in Djibouti and that even among the few active organizations, few fit the defined category of ‘professional’ development non-governmental organizations. Most are associations of private individuals who have other employment and come together for community action, largely in areas of culture and education.

A culture of networking is new to the region, lagging behind other areas of the continent. However, national and sectoral networks are learning the value of working together and of the sheer power of a collective voice on issues relevant to the region.

The Peace and Human Rights Network has been active as a network in a variety of international forums, notably, the negotiations for a new Lomé agreement between the European Union and the Africa Caribbean Pacific countries and the follow-up to the World Summit on Social Development.

Local Horn of Africa partners of Novib, the Dutch funder and Oxfam family member, have met twice in a series of meetings in the region (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Bosaaso, Somalia) to examine regional issues of resource-based conflict.

The meeting of Novib partners is unique, in that it is externally mobilized and yet has the ‘buy-in’ of the African participants and is, therefore, a success. This is seldom true of externally-mobilized networking initiatives. The investment is on the part of the well-intentioned outsider. Local ‘partners’ often participate as part of their obligation, perceived or real, to their funder. Novib is unique among funders in that it has historically demonstrated a high level of trust in its partners and a low level of its own agenda in the funding or partnership relationship.

Photo: K Conway/TIEMPO.

The most sustainable of networking activities are those initiated and mobilized ‘organically.’ However, these are often the slowest to get off the ground and the hardest to find support for.

A network launched in 1998, the Horn of Africa NGO Network for Development (HANND, at, has decided to maintain national focal points to address unique national issues and to maintain a form of loose networking for the next three years.

The network’s ultimate aims are to strengthen the ties of communication that are slowly building in the Horn of Africa, to amplify the legitimate voice of civil society from the Horn of Africa in regional, continental and international debate, and to build the capacity and independence of civil society institutions.

HANND participants have begun to use these enhanced skills to enter international forums on issues such as the Lomé agreement, the Social Summit and the role of the World Bank in the region.

The will and enthusiasm exist and the tools are emerging. What remains for the nurturing of environmental networking is the issue interest and the technical knowledge.

How, then, to take the fledgling interest in environmental concerns and create a more dynamic sector in the sub-region?

One option is to learn from the gender movement in the region. Every development endeavour now includes stated intentions of gender-inclusive participation in decision-making and implementation. Intentions may not always translate into practice and gender is far from ‘mainstreamed’. But it now has the status of being a necessary element of development.

Another option, though a somewhat negative and undesirable one, is that of donor pressure. Non-governmental organizations in the region are almost completely dependent on external funds and are often distracted from their independent mandates by the agenda of one funder or another.

Indigenous non-governmental organization leaders often hear the seemingly innocent sentence, “If you could just include this little item or engage in this kind of implementation, it would be much easier for us to consider a partnership with you.”

While international development actors must be credited with positive intentions, there is a demented side to development in the Horn of Africa. It is possible to use this for the support of as yet unpopularized issues such as the environment.

Both of the above options depend on combining environmental action with other issues of economic, social or political development.

Nurturing environmental awareness depends on ‘piggy-backing’ with other issues on the Horn of Africa’s stage – rural development, natural resource use, conflict, displacement, agriculture and pastoralism, and always, water, water, water.

Joining environmental action with issues on the stage but not in the foreground is also a strategy for getting the issues on the table and enhancing the ability to deal with them.

Building the professionalism and capacity of local non-government actors in the media, the development, health and education sectors is an example. Improving the access to information and to communication tools of the same actors is another.

Networking, organizational management, innovative resource mobilization and improved interaction among local and national governments, local civil society leaders and international development actors is another. Disabusing the international community of the myth that non-governmental organizations and civil society in a developing country must be in confrontational opposition to governments is yet another.

Finally, and more practically, there are some steps that indigenous actors who are concerned with environmental issues can take. These are steps that, initiated by local groups and individuals, can be supported by international organizations.

1. Identify each other – identifying local actors who have either a dedicated environment-focus or organizations where environment (sustainable development, natural resources, and so on) is part of a broader programme.

2. Building interest and knowledge, learning the lingo and addressing the dearth of technical knowledge.

3. Building communication systems and patterns.

4. Linking externally to build technical knowledge and alliances – first, with organizations in other parts of Africa (notably Kenya, Senegal, and South Africa) that are strong environmental institutions and building an information/representation collaboration with them and, second, connecting with international institutions, organizations, campaigns and movements according to the issues determined most salient for the region.

5. Identifying government policy, action and agencies within the sub-region and determining the best mode of engagement.

6. Continue building popular interest and stake through public education linking environmental issues, both locally and internationally, with the most relevant issues of the day, for example, agriculture, natural resources, water use, rural development, poverty alleviation, trade and so forth.

These are but some examples of strategies that are being used only minimally at present. They are submitted modestly and in no particular order, although identifying local allies is better done sooner, rather than later.

And sooner, rather than later, it is important to mobilize interest and development resources for environmental action in the Horn of Africa. From the continent and within the sub-region, the tools and ingredients exist. The biggest challenge may be to mix them together.

Further information

Renee Storteboom, NGO Networking Service, InterAfrica Group, PO Box 1631, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Fax: +251-1-517554. Email: Web:

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