By Michael J. Zamba
Thirty years of armed conflict has caused enormous damage to Afghanistan, its country, culture and people.
In addition to the physical damage, the emotional scars and the ongoing feeling of uncertainty among communities, their position in the larger social framework was greatly weakened during Taliban rule. To move the country forward, the civil society sector must be rebuilt.
“We work with civil society organizations at the local, regional and national levels to strengthen them so they are more vocal, more visible and more viable,” says Joan Parker, President and CEO of Counterpart International. “Those are the three big goals.”
To reach these goals, Counterpart launched the Initiative to Promote Afghan Civil Society (I-PACS) in 2005, which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). In the first five years of the program, I-PACS assisted more than 400 civil society organizations and reached every province of Afghanistan. Because of its success, USAID renewed the program in 2010.
Counterpart has a 61-strong in-country team, 60 of whom are Afghan nationals. They are implementing a civil society development strategy that has been used and refined by the organization in more than a dozen countries over the past three decades.
“Counterpart’s civil society development model is unique in Afghanistan because it focuses on building the capacity of local civil society organizations,” explains Ramin Nouroozi, Counterpart’s Director of Community and Policy Engagement in Kabul.
This cascading model starts with seven Intermediate Service Organizations (ISOs) – which are well-established local groups that are considered to be the best in their class and have the strongest reputation among other civil society groups.
Counterpart and its international technical partners train these ISOs and each of them in turn support two Civil Society Support Centers (CSSCs). The CSSCs are spread throughout the country and each one collaborates directly with 76 Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) in their regions to improve their skills and effectiveness, as well as enhance their ability to engage effectively with governments and establish links between community needs and policy action.
Strengthening Civil Society Improves the Country
Improving the ability of local NGOs to operate has become an important issue in Afghanistan’s development, says Aziz Rafiee, Executive Director of the Afghan Civil Society Forum (ACSFo), one of the seven partner ISOs. “People are actually putting more emphasis on [it and how] to make the empowerment process happen in our country.”
“Capacity building” includes NGO training, improving administrative systems by creating management policies, enhancing accounting and finance procedures, demonstrating ways to attract donations, installing computer networks and more.
Ensuring that local organizations succeed by adopting and implementing such training requires well-honed techniques, expert staff and qualified local partners.
“Counterpart’s approach is to be a catalyst,” says Parker. “We play three roles. First, we mentor, then we partner and then we are a long-term resource. So we progressively step out of the picture and leave the local organizations to lead their own development.”
ACSFo’s Aziz Rafiee notes that newly-formed civil society groups are eager to get involved, but typically lack the skills needed to run a modern and effective organization.
Even the more established civil society groups can use help, which is why I-PACS and its partners start their work with an assessment of an organization.
“We accompany them in all the steps of organizational development,” says Counterpart’s Ramin Nouroozi. “They are actually very open to our help. They point out their problems and they tell us what they need to be a strong civil society organization. Based on those needs, we try to identify opportunities and provide solutions.”
Counterpart’s Organizational Development Officer Wahida Mohammadzai explains how after conducting the organizational assessment, she works with the NGOs to create a development plan. Counterpart may either provide a grant or connect the NGO with another organization that can help.
The strategy is working.
“We have benefitted a great deal from I-PACS,” says the Executive Director of Basic Education and Employment Skills Training (BEST), another of I-PACS’ seven ISOs, Nazir Ahmad Mohmand. “Counterpart has played a significant role in our staff development. Not only has it built our capacity, it has helped the capacity of other civil society organizations.”
Creating management policies, finance procedures and strategic development plans are fundamental to the longevity of civil society organizations—which ultimately leads to good governance in Afghanistan.
Expanding Civil Society’s Vision
Civil society organizations in Afghanistan today often form in an effort to deliver basic services to communities and have not focused on public policy issues.
“One of the problems is that people have stayed far away from the government,” says Mohammad Haroon Nusrat, Counterpart’s Communications Coordinator in Kabul. He notes that distrust, a lack of political socialization and poor service delivery are just a few things that have created this chasm.
Ramin Nouroozi says that the I-PACS program is helping local organizations to realize that they can also become active players in public policy dialogue.
“We are trying to help them to actually understand what role they can play to advance accountability in the government,” he says. “One of the things we are trying to do is show how civil society can play a role as a watchdog group to monitor government in the budgeting process.”
By educating civil society groups about the governmental allocation process—from the initial development of a budget to the final disbursement of funds—they can see where their voice may be heard. The goals include fair distribution of government resources and a way to reduce the potential for waste or corruption.
ACSFo’s Aziz Rafiee says public policy advocacy is one of his organization’s areas of strategic importance. ACSFo has established committees on issues such as the environment, women’s rights and transparency that bring together citizens, donors and the government for discussions.
Partly as a result of their work in these areas, Afghanistan’s legislature has passed a number of laws, including a bill on civil society and legislation related to the media. “These are very, very important points where we have worked in partnership” with stakeholders, Rafiee says.
Counterpart’s Parker recognizes that training and expanding civil society’s vision are intense processes that require time.
“We’ve learned from our work in other regions of the world that creating a viable civil society sector that effectively partners with the public sector and the private sector can take years, perhaps as much as a decade,” she says. “We don’t have the luxury of that much time in Afghanistan. So we’re working very hard to find ways to fast track our engagement with these partners and leave them strong and functioning in only a few years.”
Nabila Wafeq, Counterpart’s Program Coordinator in Kabul, wants her country’s civil society to be sustainable and independent. She believes the I-PACS program will help organizations to reach those goals.
“The capacity will remain and all the efforts will remain with Afghan society, even if our international colleagues leave,” she says.