Civil Society in Afghanistan: a decade of progress and challenges by Mariam Safi

This article was originally published on Insight on Conflict, the leading online resource for local peacebuilding.

Within Afghanistan, the role of Civil Society Organisations has never been more crucial. With planned exit strategies by key allied and NATO forces approaching, many will look to these organisations to provide stability and a respite from deleterious conditions. Mariam Safi explores the progress civil society organisations have made within Afghanistation, and the situation that they find themselves in now.

Local elders speak about security and education in the Garmsir district. Courtesy of DVIDSHUB

The development of civil society organisations (CSOs) in Afghanistan cannot be described strictly as a product of the last decade of reconstruction. Rather, the roots of many reputable CSO’s today can be traced to the early 70s and 80s, extending even to the oppressive years under the Taliban regime when civil society, albeit weak, was still relatively active. Consequently, numerous CSO’s participated in both the Bonn Conference that set the foundation for a new state in Afghanistan and the subsequent Loya Jirga which elected the transitional administration of Hamid Karzaiin 2002. Since then, civil society actors have been consulted on all major conferences, with the most recent being the second Bonn Conference on Afghanistan held in December of 2011, the Chicago NATO Summit in May 2012, and the Tokyo Conference in July 2012.

The second Bonn Conference conclusions also noted “the further promotion of civil society participation, including both traditional civil society structures and modern manifestations of civic action, including the role of youth, in the country’s democratic process.” These developments are indicative of a growing and effective civil society community, however this progress and the sustainability of CSO’s in the long haul are not rid of multiple and often overlapping challenges.  CSO’s do not function in a vacuum, and thus in the context of Afghanistan CSO’s had to function and develop in relation to a new and contentious political power structure that was being formed, a growing international community presence coupled with local power brokers, and regional proxies.

Internally, CSO’s have struggled to adapt to modern administrative procedures and reporting mechanisms to facilitate transparency and accountability, they are constantly challenged by donor driven projects, suffer from lack of capacity and expertise, face an evolving security climate and there is little or no coordination between the majority of CSOs.

Definition of Afghan Civil Society

Western notions of civil society have tended to shape the discourse on Afghan civil society since the 70s. This limited who and which organisations or individuals were considered as part of CSO. Analysts have long debated whether Afghan civil society can be categorically described using classic western notions of civil society, arguing that it would be more appropriate to recognize the limits o....  In 2007, the International Peace Research Institute reported in its publication, ‘Religious Actors and Civil Society in Post-2001 Afghanistan’ that “a narrow understanding of civil society has defined peacebuilding and development policy in Afghanistan since 2001.” The report inferred that the international community overlooked traditional civil society actors and institutions that did not focus on the ‘service-delivery role’ international donors expect from civil society organisations.

Tribal Council in the Kunar province discusses peace, prosperity and the rehabilitation of Afghanistan.Courtesy of Isafmedia

In retrospect, from the 70s leading up to the 90s, Western state and non-state actors tended to associate Afghan civil society organisations with state intelligentsia professionals and politicians only. This prevented the inclusion of various traditional and ad hoc organisations that formed, as a reaction to the humanitarian needs that were emerging from the three decades of conflict (Soviet occupation, civil war, Taliban era). More so, traditional organisations such as religious and tribal councils have been completely excluded from such definitions until recently.  It was in the second Bonn Conference that the Afghan government and its international partners acknowledged the promotion of both traditional and modern CSOs.

Hence, Afghan civil society currently consists of a variety of contemporary and traditional actors such as nongovernmental organisations and professional associations that are focused on modern development and education programs, youth, women, CSO support, and professional interests. Others involved include individuals, religious figures, community development councils, and grassroots community social and cultural groups.

Evolution of Afghan Civil Society

Since 2002, CSO’s have evolved and have gradually shifted their focus and area of activities coinciding with the shifts in local needs and changes in donor interests. According toCounterpart International’s report, “2011 Afghanistan Civil Society Assessment,” issues of health, sanitation and water projects, infrastructure and conflict resolution have been replaced with education, promoting gender equality, programs for youth and promoting human rights. It is worth mentioning that issues related to health and sanitation remain key concerns for most of rural Afghanistan, however in order to meet changing donor interests which are dictated by the foreign policy interests of different international stakeholders, local CSO’s are at times forced to shift activities and focus. In rural areas, CSO activities are now focused on gender mainstreaming, promoting human rights, strengthening independent media, coordinating with other organisations, protecting the environment and implementing religious activities. In contrast, CSO’s work in urban settings is focused on providing health services and education.

Progress of Afghan Civil Society

Over the years, civil society has not only exponentially grown but its degree of influence over national and international policies is also starting to become evident. CSO’s are increasingly consulted and provided a platform to highlight their concerns related to issues of governance, security, regional dissidence and development through international and national conferences. This growth has been assisted and reinforced by the law on Non-Governmental Organizations signed by the Afghan governme..., that for the first time set a clear and comprehensive legal framework for NGOs.

The law on Non-Governmental Organizations was a step in the right direction by enhancing the legitimacy and operating environment of NGO’s throughout the country. For instance, the current number of NGO’s stands at 1550, with approximately 53 percent of them implementing activities in more then one province. However, this law is still pending approval by the Afghan National Assembly, and though there is currently no indication as to when the law will be reviewed, it still remains in full force and effect.

On the international arena, CSO’s are proving instrumental in dictating international policy towards Afghanistan.  This can be illustrated by the second Bonn Conference in late 2011, when CSO’s participated in the Civil Society Forum of Afghanistan where they presented their concerns and agenda regarding Afghanistan’s future. Two members from the civil society were then nominated to partake in the Foreign Ministers Conference held a day before the main event, where they presented the official position of the Afghan civil society that was discussed at the Bonn Conference. In total, 85 countries and 15 international organisation’s gathered to discuss the future of Afghanistan beyond the planned withdrawal of international forces in 2014.

The Afghan civil society was also present at the NATO summit in Chicago and the subsequent Tokyo Conference, both determining events for the future of Afghanistan. Over 30 CSO’s attended the NATO summit and most noteworthy was the participation of the Afghan Women’s Network which was called on to present a joint declaration before the heads of state on key issues affecting women in Afghanistan. Furthermore, CSO’s also participated in the momentous Tokyo conference which addressed ways to sustain support for Afghanistan through the decade of transformation (2015-2024). In this event, 30 members of the Afghan civil society participated in an ‘Afghan Civil Society Voices Conference’ in conjunction with Japanese CSO’s. At the end of this event, a joint Afghan and Japanese civil society organisations verdict on the Tokyo Declaration was produced outlining areas they agreed on and areas CSO’s felt required more attention. Whilst CSO’s role in influencing policy still remains limited, partly due to the fact that CSO efforts have largely gone unrecognised by the state, their actions coupled with the role of mass media and telecommunications has facilitated its expansion and pertinence.

45 percent of CSO’s claim that women are the main beneficiaries of their programs…an 18 percent increase since 2005.
Other areas of great progress have been the growing participation o.... Moreover, 45 percent of CSO’s claim that women are the main beneficiaries of their programs, which according to a report by Counterpart shows an 18 percent increase since 2005. Complimentary to the above mentioned points, has been the increase in women’s involvement in both staff capacity and volunteers. Women’s organisations are also becoming more involved at the policy level, such as the Afghan Women’s Network, which was represented at the Tokyo conference.

Discussing the needs of Afghan women in the Paktika province. Coutresy of isafmedia

Challenges face by Afghan Civil Society

With regards to effectively influencing national and international policies, CSO’s have learned that their concerns and proposals are to be ignored after the conclusion of the national and international conference. This is partly due to the Afghan government’s reluctance to acknowledge and prioritise the vital work CSO’s have been engaged in and the authority they could exalt as a collective entity. Secondly, the lack of coordination amongst CSO’s has prevented them from uniting agenda’s, particularly when it is necessary if they are to represent a single voice in meetings.  Whilst numerous forums such as the Afghanistan Civil Society Forum Organization (ACSFO) and The Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR) have been created to bring together CSO’s and foster better communication and coordination between them, they have largely been ineffective.

Additionally, the international community’s policy on civil society has been as inconsistent as their nation-building strategy in Afghanistan. Similar to the international community’s changing approaches to nation building and lack of understanding of the local context, their approach to assisting civil society was no different. International donor’s do not have a sufficient understanding of the kind of help required and how best to provide it. Furthermore, most aid programmes are donor-driven, causing resentment on behalf of local NGO’s. The founding Director of the Independent Directorate of Local Governance, prudently articulated this resentment when, at an international conference on peacebuilding in Stockholm, he stated that “expats become experts very quickly”.

Two other rising concerns amongst for CSOs are the lack of funding and insecurity. Over the years, and particularly at this junction with the security transition process underway, insecurity has become widespread. CSO’s are finding it increasingly difficult to operate in districts and villages they had been active in not too long ago. With the international community’s drawdown in 2014, many CSO’s fear aid to Afghanistan will begin to decline, which will severely impede the majority of CSO’s who are dependent on it. Nevertheless, irrespective of these challenges,  CSO’s will continue to play a vital role in establishing peace and stability in Afghanistan which must be fostered by both the Afghan government and the international community.

This article was originally published on Insight on Conflict, the leading online resource for local peacebuilding.

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