During the last months, AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini has had the chance to follow closely the process leading to the formation of a network of Afghan civil society organisations, its path to a two-day conference in Kabul, and its plans for future initiatives.
‘On one thing I don’t agree with my colleagues: this is not the first conference which sees a joint participation of us, members of different organisations of the civil society’ – this single line heard during a post-conference meeting with diplomats probably catches the essence of the situation in which the civil society associations found themselves for a long time. A tight schedule of conferences, workshops and assemblies, more or less inclusive, depending on the title or the organiser’s taste, and some degree of disagreement left among them. And, overall, a lack of permanent means and structures to promote and support a more than extemporary initiative on part of the civil society they claim to represent.
One of the aims of the conference of 30-31 March(*), held at Kabul’s Setara Hotel(**) was exactly to explore the possibilities to move onto this most important and – until now – missing step, namely a follow-up to the conference. In other words, the objective was to start a process from an initial project and not just to have another conference as the ultimate objective and only result.
The process of coming together has, in this case, involved 14 different organisations and lasted for some months(***). The initiative was prompted by Afgana, a network of Italian civic associations, trade unions, journalists and academics, who had since long applied to the Italian Foreign Ministry for funds to organise a pair of conferences involving Afghan civil society – the first was, in fact, the one in Setara Hotel, the other to take place in Rome next month.
The umbrella organisation that developed during the past months has thus another short-term event to keep focusing on, but its stated objectives are much more ambitious. The Italian donors are interested in providing a long-term support aimed at establishing a ‘house of the civil society’ in Kabul in the future. Physical spaces apart, the members of the newly constituted network appear committed to avoid falling apart again after each single civil society event, and to consolidate instead into a permanent platform able to catalyse and support the energies of activists and groups countrywide.
The process has been actually an energy-consuming one until now: the presence of a wide-spectrum of organisations, from NGOs coordination networks to Soviet-era trade unions, and their different approaches and operative methods could even imply different understandings of what ‘civil society’ is. But the need of an exact conceptualisation was overcome with the help of a more urgent one: the shared view that civil society is not being paid the due attention by the government, especially in view of the critical moment that the Afghan state is going through and the vital decisions that must be taken to assure its future peace and prosperity.
‘Strengthening the Role of the Civil Society Organizations in Decision-making Processes’, the conference title was in fact agreed upon at quite an early stage. The unbalanced relation within state institutions and civil society was expressed by a member of the steering committee: ‘the state can work effectively without civil society, but civil society cannot work effectively without the state, because it cannot make and implement decisions over society in autonomy from it.’
As for the dialectic of this relation, one of his colleagues portrayed it caustically: ‘No state or government will ever want the civil society to be active, it is the civil society that should work and grab the right to decide for itself.’
The wide-spread perception is that during these years the government has been merely exploiting the name of the ‘civil society’, along with that of the Afghan ‘people’, during national and international conferences and jirgas to give legitimacy to its decisions, hand-picking delegates and relegating them to a mainly symbolic role. ‘We should decide if we want to be activists for the civil society, or just employees working in this sector. As of now, our work is too similar to that of other NGOs.’
This position, which without rejecting what has been done until now shows dissatisfaction as to the present level of civil society mobilisation, was strongly expressed in one of the first key note speeches of the conference by Engineer Abdul Sattar, deputy director of ANCB: ‘We cannot complain anymore about our lack of means, we got the chairs now but nobody sitting on them is working hard, while in other countries they may have to stand on their feet but they are toiling and achieving results.’ The veiled reference to the Arab world’s turmoil and the following remark that ‘so, if you just put on your best suits to come here and give a speech, you may leave as well’ drew a spontaneous applause from the participants.
However, the different topics discussed in detail at the conference were quite a few, and some of the talks really worth listening to, ranging from civic values, transitional justice, good governance, and the status of women to mass media and access to information. During the second day working groups were created to facilitate the participation of all people presents, especially the 66-odd delegates coming from the provinces.
Reference to the peace process was evident, and deliberate, since the title of the conference. Civil society activists harbour many complaints about their marginalised role in the Peace Jirga held last June and the so-called peace process. These first steps taken on this have created suspicions and concerns among them.
To try and sooth these, Aziz Ahmadzai, the chief of operations of the High Peace Council (HPC) secretariat who filled the place of Massum Stanakzai at the conference, had recourse to all of his skilful rhetoric and eloquence. For example he justified earlier failures of efforts to reintegrate former fighters into society by giving the following example: ‘In a third world country like ours, traditionally somebody spends six or seven years as an apprentice with a master before becoming a tailor, or a mechanic, or whatever himself. Our programs had short time-frames, you cannot turn a fighter into a professional in six months.’ His main request towards civil society, however, was to act as an intermediary between the HPC and the people, to do public outreach for the former and ‘convey the peace process to the ears of every Afghan’.
The perspective of becoming auxiliaries to a pre-established program, however, failed to satisfy the public, and objections were made by many of the provincial delegates present, from Sar-e Pul to Nangrahar, who had personally witnessed the shortcomings of the process’s initial phases in their areas. They voiced their concerns not only with regard to the inadequacy of the reintegration efforts, but also to the non-impartiality of the HPC members and the lack of initiatives to address the external causes and actors in the conflict as well, and stated that the peace process cannot, until now, claim any success.
If one of the conference’s aims was to ensure a high level of participation from civil society activists coming from the provinces, this can be assessed positively. Notwithstanding the long question-and-answer sessions scheduled during the two days of the conference, it always proved difficult to convince the participants to come to an end and move to the tea break – a sign that those people have not had sufficient opportunity to raise their questions and to express their concerns.
As for another of the objectives set prior to the conference, that of establishing further cooperation between civil society and the government, more could probably have been done, at least on the part of the government. Notwithstanding the welcome note forwarded from the presidential office by Sebghatullah Sanjar, the presence of the state institutions at the conference has been minimal. The Minister of Economy, who had initially agreed to give an introductory speech on ‘the position of the government regarding civil society’, did desert the conference at the eleventh hour(****). If this was to be taken as a fair sample of this position, the message was not lost on the presents.
(*) Read he conference’s final resolution at the end of this document.
(**) There was a simultaneous conference in (West) Kabul organized by activists working on the transitional justice and the victims of war.
(***) These are: ACBAR (Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief), ACSF (Afghan Civil Society Forum), ANCB (Afghan NGO Coordination Board), ATSA (Afghan Teachers Support Association), AWN (Afghan Women Network), CSDC (Civil Society Development Center), CPAU (Cooperation for Peace and Unity), CSHRN (Civil Society Human Rights Network), FCCS (Foundation for Culture and Civil Society), LAOA (Legal Aid Organization Afghanistan), Mediothek, NUAE (National Union of Afghan Employees), SDO (Sanayee Development Organization). Coordination was provided by Najiba Ayubi of DHSA-TGK (The Killid Group).
(****) For a new opposition group in the making, Hanif Atmar, who had agreed to give a lecture on ‘civil society and political participation in Afghanistan’, also failed to show up at the conference.
Strengthening the Role of Civil Society Organizations in Decision-Making Processes
The conference ‘Strengthening the Role of Civil Society Organizations in Decision-making Processes’ was held in Kabul with the participation of more than 150 activists from 34 Provinces of Afghanistan on 10 and 11th of Hamal 1390 ( 30th and 31st of March 2011).
During the conference, a broad discussion was made on achievements, events and responsibilities of the Afghan civil society including their future challenges and obstacles, and more talks focused on establishing a good governance, rule of law, transparency and accountability, transitional and social justice, balanced development and increasing the role of civil society organizations in the decision making processes.
Consequently, at the end of the consultation with all the participants, the following points were suggested to the government and international community:
1. Civil society organizations in Afghanistan have the strength and the necessary capacity and efficiency to make decisions that shape national issues, and play their role actively and effectively. The Afghan government should recognize the civil society as an effective partner in local and national decision-making.
2. During the two-day meeting, the civil society organizations agreed to take up their role in the decision-making in a fully coherent and coordinated way in order to strengthen networking among member organizations.
3. Afghan civil society organizations have the capacity and capability of monitoring local government functions. Suggestions and solutions provided by the civil society for good governance, transparency and accountability should be followed and put into practice by the government.
4. In order to win our cooperation for establishing an efficient and accountable governance, the conference participants ask the government to avoid biased, individual and symbolic treatment of civil society organizations and to value qualitative and quantitative civic participation as a principle of democratic governance.
5. Afghan civil society organizations ask to the international community and donor agencies not to deal with civil society organizations on a project-oriented base, but to bestow financial and technical attention to capacity building and the developing of a long-term strategy.
6. Media, considering their national mission and social responsibility, should continue their cooperation with civil society in reaching their lofty humanitarian goals and the preservation of national and spiritual values.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020