By Maggie Farrand and Michael J. Zamba
Two decades ago, the Afghan Women’s Education Center (AWEC) focused on providing refugees flowing into Pakistan with basic literacy skills. When the Taliban regime fell in 2001, the organization moved into Afghanistan and opened an elementary school and a high school.
While those educational services continue, AWEC has expanded its role to also include advocating for the rights of women and girls. “When the government wants to make a decision,” says AWEC’s I-PACS program manager Hafizullah Sajid, “civil society has to put pressure on it and advocate for the benefit of the people.”
Public policy advocacy is a vital step for civil society that will eventually improve conditions for the country’s citizens, experts say.
Ramin Nouroozi, Director of Community and Policy Engagement at Counterpart International’s office in Kabul, says non-governmental organizations like AWEC are moving from “first-generation” NGOs—which provide only services to their communities—to “second-generation” NGOs, who expand their portfolios to include public policy work and even train fellow groups.
He describes these second-generation NGOs as the bridge between the people and their government. “Civil society is the voice of the people,” he says.
Maiwand Rahyab, Counterpart’s Acting Country Director, believes civil society’s role in public policy is essential to development since it ensures pluralism. “I define civil society as groups of people, organizations and communities who gather together to achieve a common goal, without having any personal interest,” he says.
Creating a modern civil society sector is a colossal undertaking. Through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) funded Initiative to Promote Afghan Civil Society (I-PACS), which started in 2005, Counterpart is playing a role in creating and promoting a broader and deeper civil society infrastructure that serves the true needs of the Afghan people.
“When citizens participate, you end up with stronger policies, stronger programs and a government that’s better aligned with the needs of the communities and the country,” explains Joan Parker, Counterpart’s President and CEO. “Civil society in Afghanistan is essential because it allows the citizens at the community level, at the provincial level, all the way up to the national level, to engage and be a part of deciding their own future.”
Aziz Rafiee, Executive Director of the Afghan Civil Society Forum (ACSFo), one the many NGOs supported by Counterpart’s I-PACS program, sees hope for his country’s future as a burgeoning civil society emerges and Afghans find their voice.
“The involvement of Afghan people today in the political arena is remarkable,” he says. “Never in the history of Afghanistan have we experienced this kind of participation.”
Civil society is building trust among Afghans and demonstrating how it can be another channel through which citizens may have their voices heard, says the head of ACSFo, which is a partner in Counterpart’s I-PACS program.
Civil Society Reborn
Under the Taliban, the voice of Afghan citizens was stifled. In fact, any attempt to organize was met with swift opposition. Afghans were left powerless; the Taliban had complete control.
When the regime fell in 2001, Afghanistan’s new leaders realized that if they were going to succeed, the establishment of a vibrant civil society sector needed to rise to the top of the country’s priority list.
In 2004, a new NGO law was ratified, marking a huge stride forward for the legitimacy and visibility of Afghan civil society organizations. With support from Counterpart, Afghan NGOs provided significant input for that law, which officially gives them the legal right to organize and operate non-governmental organizations dedicated to serving the people’s needs.
Since that law took effect, there has been dramatic growth in civil society. Today, Afghanistan is home to nearly 1,550 officially registered organizations.
“The state of civil society in the past nine years has changed enormously and dramatically,” says Rafiee. “The level of understanding of civil society among the people and the level of involvement of civil society in both policy and advocacy has been remarkable.”
Obstacles Facing NGOs
Despite NGO’s legal status, they face a number of obstacles when operating in Afghanistan. As for all Afghans, the lack of security continues to be the number one issue for NGOs.
“The security situation has worsened since 2010, especially in Kunduz,” says Malika Qanih, Director of the Educational Training Center for Poor Women and Girls (ECW). “If a suicide attack occurs near our office, we have to close for two days.”
Fortunately ECW, which works in nearly a dozen provinces and is a Counterpart partner, has not yet shutdown any programs because of these concerns.
ACSFo’s Rafiee says the lack of security in some regions has a direct impact on NGOs’ ability to serve their communities.
“In the areas where we are having security problems and concerns, the development and the involvement is lower than the areas where adequate security is available,” says Rafiee.
Rahela Malekzad and her organization have faced these security issues in villages. As a gender trainer for the Legal and Cultural Services for Afghan Women and Children (LCSAWC), they have gone into communities to disseminate information on voting and other issues.
“Villages have many security problems,” she says. “But Afghans are brave. God has said in the Holy Quran that the one working to promote education and who makes sacrifices will be rewarded. With the help of God, our beliefs and courage, we went into these insecure areas.”
In general, NGOs have good reputations and use strategies to overcome local obstacles, says Nazir Ahmad Mohmand, Director of Basic Education and Employment Skills Training (BEST). “When they work in the community’s language and culture, as well as hiring people who are trustworthy, hardworking and dependable, they don’t face negative perceptions,” he says.
Another obstacle to working with communities is the lack of basic education.
In the rural areas of Afghanistan, illiteracy rates are very high – in some places it can reach 90 percent. To help inform and engage the population in these rural communities, NGOs like Counterpart and its partners use radio campaigns, broadcasted roundtables and public dialogues to reach out.
Money is also a problem facing civil society. Foreign assistance supports some of the larger organizations, while smaller groups are trying to develop a pipeline of donors. One of Counterpart’s methods for addressing this need is by prioritizing “private giving” providing a detailed analysis of ways to leverage private giving options and to introduce the concept to both civil society stakeholders and government.
As part of Counterpart’s I-PACS program, experts are working with civil society organizations to help them create strategies to make them financially strong and attractive to donors.