CSOs, including International Organizations, began to emerge in the 1960s during the imperial regime with the enactment of the law governing civil society associations (1960 civil code of Ethiopia). Apart from traditional associations, such as iqubs and idirs, other associations are of recent origin.

The traditional forms of civil society in Ethiopia primarily served the interests of their members, rather than those of the general public. Such organizations included traditional community-based organizations like idir and iqub and other informal self-help organizations. Other associations, registered under the 1960 Civil Code, were mainly professional associations such as trade groups and unions which did not play a significant role in the development or public issues. Groups, such as government-supported women’s associations and patriotic groups played a marginal role in their communities.

During the Derg regime (1974-1991) CSOs considerably increased in number as a result of the catastrophic famines of 1973-1974 and in particular 1984-1985. Philanthropy grew in importance and visibility during these famines, both of which caused mass migration and a huge loss of lives and property. This resulted in exponential growth of organizations and faith-based institutions engaging in humanitarian aid. Since the famines, organizations began to engage in development work as well.