A difficult balance: Building local capacity in southern Afghanistan

News and Press Release
Originally published
by Cassandra Markham Nelson
After 23 years of war in Afghanistan, the country's non-governmental organization (NGO) sector has not had the opportunity to mature and develop to its potential. Furthermore, as Afghanistan enters a new stage of development, new methods of assessment and community mobilization to ensure the inclusion of all members of society and the integration of civil society principles are required.

"In Kandahar, the NGO sector has faced severe challenges in the past, and as a result, many local NGOs in southern Afghanistan have a low capacity and do not include basic principles of civil society in their programming," says Melissa Himes, a Mercy Corps Program Manager. "Many local NGOs need further development in management, implementation methodologies and administrative capabilities."

In light of the current ground realities, Mercy Corps has embarked on a large-scale rural rehabilitation and capacity building program in southern Afghanistan with funding from the British Government's Department for International Development (DFID). The primary goals of the program are to improve the rural livelihoods of Afghan people and to strengthen local NGOs with a focus on integrating principles of civil society.

"Specifically, the program is focused on building accountability and participation into NGOs with an end goal of enabling peaceful change," says Himes. "And, in a region devastated by decades of fighting and repressive regimes, this is a massive task."

The Mercy Corps program includes an umbrella grant program that has resulted in the selection of 13 proposals from local NGOs for project funding. The accepted proposals include a wide variety of initiatives, including tailoring and bakery training for women, karez cleaning, school construction, installation of a dairy feed mill, health clinic construction, and greenhouses for vegetable production at a local farming cooperative.

According to John Westerman, Mercy Corps' Monitoring, Reporting and Community Development Officer, overseeing the grants and ensuring partner organizations adhere to the key principles of civil society in program implementation has been a challenge. "I don't want to micro-manage the projects, but I need to ensure the program objectives are being met," he says. "It is a difficult balance."

To stress the importance of accountability it has been written into grant contracts that if there are any financial misdoings it will result in stopping funding and turning the grant over to another organization.

Strong adherence to this principle has resulted in one program being halted. During a routine monitoring visit, Mercy Corps discovered that a partner organization building a school was using the lowest quality of bricks but were reporting that they had used high quality bricks. After thorough investigation, Mercy Corps also found that the organization was falsifying documents indicating that laborers had worked for more days and pay than was true. Mercy Corps decided to terminate funding for the program. The partner organization was violating the core principle of accountability to both Mercy Corps and the community in which they were working.

Monitoring of programs is a critical responsibility for Mercy Corps, and pre-monitoring and routine monitoring visits have been built into the grant management process. Four Mercy Corps grants officers regularly visit program sites to ensure program goals are being met.

On a recent monitoring visit to a women's bakery training program being implemented by the Bakhtar Agriculture and Livestock Cooperative (BALCO), Westerman discovered that the instructor had not come to teach the course for the past several days. A supervisor from BALCO responsible for ensuring everything was running smoothly failed to report the absence of the instructor to the director, Mohammad Omar Satai. When Westerman and Satia arrived they were surprised to find the students sitting having tea and not in class. However, after follow-up discussions between Mercy Corps and BALCO the issue was resolved and the women are pleased with the program and learning all about baking.

Matiullah, Mercy Corps Grant Officer, spends most of his time in the field monitoring programs and notes that there are many challenges. "The beneficiaries are often unaware of their rights and don't take the initiative to communicate any problems to us," he says. "This is why we have such rigorous monitoring systems. To identify if there are problems we need to go out to the site. It is only by meeting with the community that I am able to find out if the program is being successful."

To foster participatory practices, local NGOs are being shown the importance of including beneficiaries in their decision-making processes. "Local NGOs have not shown past experience in linking communities to projects," says Himes. "In an effort to enforce this, Mercy Corps has built in pre-monitoring visits to ensure that potential partners have sought community input in developing their proposal. In cases where the proposal has appeared strong, but in pre-monitoring visits we have learned that the community was not involved in the process, we have made the NGO go back to the community to gather more input before funding them."

In addition Himes notes, "Community contribution is an important part of many projects. For instance, in our tailoring program, at the end of the program, each student must make an item that the association can sell to raise money for future development."

Another component of the DFID-funded capacity building project is the development and construction of an NGO center in Kandahar and a sub-center in Lashkaghar, Helmand. Its purpose will be to provide local NGOs and community-based organizations a location for networking and coordinating activities, and access to resources, training and the internet. Another objective for the center is to help to create a more neutral NGO community. "Now, the local NGO community is very political," says Himes, "and long-standing, favored organizations are receiving inside information about grants and preference for funding. By creating a neutral space where all NGOs can have equal access to information and resources, we hope to enable new organizations to launch, as well as strengthen the existing local NGOs."

Cassandra Markham Nelson is Senior Media and Information Officer for Mercy Corps in Afghanistan and Pakistan.