Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Rights and Freedoms

Is the Citizens’ Charter the Right Vehicle for Reconciliation? The risks of monetising peace

Jelena Bjelica 14 min

The Citizens’ Charter is a community-driven development programme, currently implemented in one third of Afghanistan, which is seen as key means of reducing poverty. However, there are pilots planned that will stretch this ambitious programme beyond its economic goals, to use it as a vehicle for peace. AAN’s Jelena Bjelica looks at the mixed achievements of the Citizens’ Charter and its predecessor the National Solidarity Programme, as well as the poor track record of combining resource allocation with conflict resolution. She concludes that while the Charter could provide some counterbalance to yet another elite bargain, it cannot replace the need for national processes that address issues of truth and reconciliation.  

Afghan farmers work on a water canal to irrigate their fields in Char Blouk district of Balkh Province. Some 82,000 small-scale activities that included improved water supply and sanitation, rural roads, irrigation, power supply, health, and education were implemented through the National Solidarity Programme between 2003 and 2017. Photo: Qais Usyan/AFP. 2012

Community-driven development approach and peace 

Received wisdom says that public service delivery should improve state legitimacy in post-conflict or conflict states that suffer from a legitimacy gap, where citizens do not accept the state ruling over them. In states which are not capable of providing and delivering basic public services, the programmes or projects that engender a community-driven development approach are often seen as a vehicle that serves to remedy this gap. Additionally, it is believed that the public services can provide a tangible benefit that can illustrate the value of peace, the so-called ‘peace dividend’. (1) 

This approach became increasingly popular among development agencies and governments from the mid-1980s onwards, as a World Bank paper suggests. The current theoretical framework, however, has mostly been developed since the beginning of the 21st century. 

Empirical studies, however, suggest that these lofty ambitions tend to be only partially met. A 2013 review of community-driven development (CDD) defines the approach as one “that empowers local community groups, including local government, by giving direct control to the community over planning decisions and investment resources through a process that emphasizes participatory planning and accountability” (see A Critical Review of Community‐Driven Development Programmes in Conflict‐Affected Contexts by Elisabeth King. King, in her study that drew on rigorous academic impact evaluations, examined CDD programmes in Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Aceh (Indonesia), Liberia and Sierra Leone. King’s report describes the CDD approach as one which is thought to be “a way to provide social and infrastructure services, organize economic activity and resource management, empower poor people, improve governance, and enhance security of the poorest.” 

According to King’s study, community-driven development interventions are based on three principles: “improved socio-economic recovery; improved social cohesion; and improved governance.” CDD interventions are seen as vehicles that will not only improve the quality of life through socio-economic recovery, but will also generate enough social interaction to effect greater social cohesion, resulting in an improved and participatory model of local governance. King, however, concluded that community-driven development was better “at generating more tangible economic outcomes [than]… generating social changes related to governance and social cohesion.”

The experience in Afghanistan, according to King’s study, showed that the National Solidarity Programme had indeed generated better economic outcomes, but also that there was no measurable improvement in goals related to social change, as will be shown in the following section.

A brief overview of the National Solidarity Programme

The National Solidarity Programme (NSP) started in 2003 and ended its third and final phase in March 2017. It was designed to extend the administrative reach of the state, build representative institutions for local governance and deliver critical services to the rural population of Afghanistan. In response to the severe deficit of basic services and trust in central government’s abilities, the then newly installed government of President Hamed Karzai (in which current President Ashraf Ghani was the finance minister) established the programme. The NSP, with a total budget of 2.7 billion US dollars over its three phases, was the earliest and by far the largest initiative funded by the World Bank and a consortium of bilateral donors using a community-driven development approach. It was an on-budget programme implemented by the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD) but executed through a mix of national and international NGOs hired by the government.  NSP provided block grants (2) to communities that they could invest on the basis of community development plans formulated with the help of NGOs (eight national and 21 international). 

The NSP also helped establish 32,000 community development councils (CDCs) across 361 districts out of a total of almost 400 districts (the number of districts varies depending on who counts them). (3) Half of all council seats were allocated to women, elected through a secret-ballot. The CDCs identified and implemented some 82,000 small-scale reconstruction and development activities, providing over 20 million Afghans with access to one or more of the following services: improved water supply and sanitation, rural roads, irrigation, power supply, health, and education. (4) 

However, a qualitative evaluation of the programme commissioned by the World Bank in 2015 provided a mixed assessment of the NSP. The 2015 evaluation that used a randomised control trial across 500 villages in Afghanistan found that while “the results show that NSP positively affects the access of villagers to drinking water and electricity, increases acceptance of democratic processes, improves perceptions of economic wellbeing, and lessens constraints to the participation of women in public affairs,” its effects faded quickly. The evaluation said:

Positive effects on attitudes towards central and sub-national government fade quickly following the completion of NSP-funded projects. Moreover, the NSP negatively affected perceptions of local governance quality among male respondents, while the composition and behaviour of the customary village leadership appears to be unaffected by the intervention. 

Furthermore the evaluation said that “the relative ineffectiveness of community development councils (CDCs), in changing de facto village leadership structures and the negative impact on perceived local governance quality indicates that the creation of new institutions in parallel to customary structures may not have the desired effect, particularly in cases in which the roles of new institutions are not well-defined.”

The same point was made by academic Adam Pain in his paper published in Asian Survey (Volume 58, Issue 6, 2018), titled ‘Village Context and the National Solidarity Program in Afghanistan‘: 

Programs in Afghanistan such as the NSP or the Agriculture Rural Enterprise Development Program have sought to promote collective action and bring about changes in village-level government. But they have rarely taken account of how villages organized and managed their affairs before the intervention, assuming a tabula rasa. There has been a programmatic assumption that there is a landscape of identical villages with few legacies from the past and that new interventions to reorder village government simply displace what was there before […] But ambitions for a role for the CDCs still remain in Afghanistan, and the new Citizens’ Charter (CC), which is seen as the successor to the NSP, specifically sets out to create a new social contract between communities and government.

However, there are some who contest this view. According to a former presidential advisor who worked closely on NSP and the Citizens Charter, Scott Guggenheim, “The public policy problem that NSP was trying to solve was not about how to rebuild village social structure.” Guggenheim told AAN: “It is how money from the centre of government can be transferred to villages using the tools and rules of public policy. Within the framework of general planning, financial record-keeping and participation, villages could structure their CDCs anyway they wanted to. Pretty much every field report says that is exactly what they did. I’m not sure why people are so surprised that after one round of CDC disbursements you still find local elites and tribal elders in CDCs.” He said that the NSP’s idea from “the beginning was to catalyse some of these changes, but it would be pretty dumb to both ignore the larger context and think that traditional culture and authority was going to follow a World Bank project timeline.” It can also be easily assumed that the ‘commander class’ who had “captured territory and state positions off the back of the [2001 US-led] intervention” (see intro to AAN’s latest special report on the Afghan rentier economy) had been also able to hijack CDCs or programme’s priorities and decisions in their areas of influence in many cases. 

When it comes to achieving a more gender-balanced local governance structure, King’s study found that “In Afghanistan, where 15 per cent of funds were specifically dedicated to a women’s project, interviews suggest that this resulted in men (50 per cent) controlling 85 per cent of the funds, and women (50 per cent) controlling 15 per cent of funding.” This, according to King, implied that “this ear-marking disempowered rather than empowered women.”  She also said: 

In Afghanistan, elites had significant sway over project choice when choices were made through at-large elections and consultative meetings; this was less the case when choices were made via referendum. In Afghanistan, this sometimes resulted in women “being denied meaningful participation in the programme, despite a strong interest, and projects favored by or benefiting women getting de-prioritized by powerful male elites.” 

King’s study also highlighted that the post-2001 peace dividend (social infrastructure, service delivery, short-term economic improvement) as a proximate outcome, as well as social cohesion as an indirect outcome, had not been measured and reported in Afghanistan. 

By the time the NSP closed down in March 2017, the government had lost control of large sways of territory (see this AAN analysis on 2017 security trends). Despite that and with the mixed results NSP created as its heritage, it was soon replaced with a new community-driven programme – the Citizens’ Charter. (5). 

Insights into the Citizens’ Charter 

The Citizens’ Charter encompasses two programmes: the national priority programmes that includes all public service delivery and aims to contribute to the Government’s long-term goals of reducing poverty and deepening the relationship between citizens and the state (6) and the Citizens’ Charter Afghanistan Project which is, simply put, a revamped NSP. The aim is to improve infrastructure and service delivery, while at the same time strengthening the ability of communities to hold the government accountable. “This objective”, the project says, “will contribute to the Government’s long-term goals of reducing poverty, breaking the cycle of fragility and violence, and deepening the legitimacy of the Afghan state.” (7)

The Citizens’ Charter documents also stipulate that the programme “will contribute to the Government’s goals of regaining the trust of the population, reducing poverty and empowering women, by developing the next generation of healthy, educated, and productive Afghans,” and will give “focus, drive, and coherence to a powerful national, whole-of-Government effort that overcomes the fragmentation of the past.”

Furthermore, the Citizens’ Charter is meant to be “an evolution of the National Solidarity Program (NSP),” that should supposedly bring a monitoring and evaluation component to the communities in order to improve service delivery and hold government accountable. An Afghan government document states that CDCs should therefore become “the means by which citizens can demand services, hold line agencies accountable and ensure the poorest and most vulnerable can access services.” It also says that “the Charter is not only about the delivery of services, but the standards of service delivery citizens can expect.” 

While it is certainly a noble goal to promote accountability in Afghanistan on the local level, the reality of the Citizens’ Charter implementation shows that currently accountability is patchy. A representative of an international NGO, speaking to AAN on condition of anonymity, said that in some communities the activities are behind schedule because the MRRD has no access or it is short-staffed. The NGOs are dependent on government disbursing the funds and providing technical oversight, so the whole programme is lagging behind. 

An additional impediment for the Citizens’ Charter project is Taleban taxation (for an in-depth analysis see joint AAN and USIP series on service-delivery in insurgency-affected areas ), according to a recently released report on the Citizens Charter commissioned by several NGOs. The reported quoted an NGO worker: 

I went up to a village and asked them how is your interaction with the Taliban regarding a given project? They said: we have to give them 1 AFN out of 10 meaning that 10 percent of the total fund should be diverted to their pocket. Taliban asked the same from us. We went up to them and had a 3 hour-long meeting with them at the end of which we could convince them not to double charge us. If we, as FPs [facilitating partners, ie NGOs] pay 10 percent in tax and the government does the same for one given project, then this is ‘double charge’.

In the current political and security context in Afghanistan the accountability goal is ambitious, based on an unrealistic assumption about the potential power of communities, particularly in contested areas, where communities are still left to take care of themselves and negotiate with different powerbrokers. 

Is the Citizens’ Charter the right vehicle for peace in Afghanistan? 

It has never been shown that the NSP and Citizens Charter created a tangible peace dividend. However, there is now a plan from the government and its donors to pilot reconciliation and social cohesion activities within the Citizens’ Charter in the three provinces in the east of the country – Nangrahar, Laghman and Kunar. Some internal documents on the Charter that AAN has seen suggest that “complementary measures to rebuild local solidarity and resolve problems of poverty, exploitation, and grievance must be added to the core Citizen’s Charter framework.” This would include cultural activities or social media outreach within the communities in these three provinces, the World Bank told AAN. 

The pilot raises a number of critical questions, not least whether local development platforms can ever be an effective vehicle for bringing about processes as complex as reconciliation and fostering social cohesion. For example, there is little clarity yet about how the Citizens Charter might address complex issues such as exploitation and grievances, beyond the mentioned cultural activities and social media campaigns. This would be a poor substitute for bringing about much needed truth and reconciliation, which are major components of a meaningful peace process, to the communities.  

Guggenheim also stresses that the Charter would not replace the need for a national reconciliation process. He told AAN: “The Charter cannot solve high level problems, but it can be an outlet at the local level, a forum that can deal with local level disputes and conflict.” He, however, said that the Citizens Charter could be a part of a peace process, because it can defuse local level problems that will inevitably arise once large numbers of men are demobilised as a result of a peace process. “It is not in any way an alternative or substitute for high level actions on peace, justice, reconciliation. It is just the leg that deals with communities and local perceptions,” Guggenheim said. However, communities and local perceptions are at the heart of the myriad conflicts that beset Afghanistan. 

While it is reassuring that this is being framed as only one part of a wider process, it is troubling that donors and the government may push ahead with a resource driven pilot, without waiting for any realistic sign that high-level reconciliation and justice efforts are even on the horizon. Past efforts at reconciliation and ‘stabilisation’ in Afghanistan have shown that applying resources to try to ease local conflict can actually have destabilising impacts (see for example AAN’s report here; also Fishstein and Wilder and a later USIP review or this report from SIGAR). The community development councils are primarily resource distribution vehicles. Evaluations show, however, that this is a task which they are only partially able to deliver. The wider social cohesion and accountability benefits have not been demonstrated. So it seems ambitious to think that they can take this on now, particularly given the limited ability of the government and donors to monitor and evaluate complex local level initiatives. 

There is very little attention going to what the shape of a wider national reconciliation and justice process might look like, an area that the government and many donors have been politically avoidant of for many years. There is little sign yet that peace efforts will be anchored in the values of truth and reconciliation, enabling people to come to terms with the violence of the past. (Read an AAN analysis about hurdles for the peace process.)

Lessons from other contexts suggest this would require a nation-wide process involving a specialised body, such as the Afghanistan Independent Humans Rights Commission (AIHRC). (The AIHRC has documentation experience but would need a capacity uplift or collaborate with another body to lead the wider reconciliation processes). The experiences from the Balkans, for example, show that recognising the suffering of victims through documentation, truth-seeking and symbolic measures is one of the key processes. Nataša Kandić, a coordinator for the Regional Commission Tasked with Establishing the Facts about All Victims of War Crimes and Other Serious Human Rights Violations Committed on the Territory of the Former Yugoslavia from 1 January 1991 to 31 December 2001 (RECOM), told AAN that documenting victims’ by name has been one of the most important political processes in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. “This process has been equally important for rebuilding the relationship within the local communities, and between the communities and those members of the communities that supported or had been close to perpetrators,” Kandić told AAN. 

In Afghanistan, the Transitional Justice Coordination Group (TJCG) drew on international examples to argue that victims’ participation in peace negotiations results in more sustainable outcome, in their paper “Building a Lasting Peace in Afghanistan: Participation of Victims of War in Peace Negotiations” (available on request). Along the same lines, AAN’s Sari Kouvo and Human Rights Watch’s Patricia Gossman recommended, in the 2013 AAN special report “Tell Us How This Ends: Transitional Justice and Prospects for Peace in Afghanistan”, a series of steps that need to be taken in Afghanistan to end the cycle of violence and build sustainable peace, including the creation of a national directory of mass graves (to recognise those communities that have faced massacres and to protect the sites), a national directory of the disappeared, the amendment or revocation of the Amnesty Law and dissemination of information about the ICC’s preliminary analysis, among others. 

In light of these questions and shortcomings, the Citizens’ Charter may not be the vehicle that could or should carry such a process. If a genuine attempt was made at a national reconciliation process, there may be an important role that the community development councils could play, under the auspices of the AIHRC or any other body that was leading it. But there is ample evidence to warn against a superficial form of conflict resolution which is led by a structure that typically allocates resources. There is also a risk of overloading already flawed or fragile community councils with the task of reconciliation. As King observed in her study, community development councils are not a panacea. 

Edited by Christian Bleuer, Rachel Reid and Thomas Ruttig

(1) The phrase ‘peace dividends’ has many definitions. The phrase, originally, was a political slogan popularised by US President George Bush and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the early 1990s, purporting to describe the economic benefit of a decrease in defence spending. In literature on Afghanistan it usually a two-hold definition that relates both to the political and economic opportunities that can be unlocked after conflicts are resolved, and also the package of measures delivered in the wake of a conflict to bolster support for a new political settlement (see this European Institute for Peace paper). For more definitions see also this USIP paper on the peace divided and talks with the Taleban. In this text, ‘peace dividends’ refers to the package of measures delivered in the wake of a conflict to bolster support for the new political settlement.

(2) The block grants had been valued at 200 US Dollars per household, up to a village maximum of 60,000 US Dollars and averaging 33,000 US Dollars, to fund village-level projects designed and selected by CDCs in consultation with villagers. For more see the 2015 World Bank evaluation and Adam Pain’s paper.

(3) Find an official district list provided by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) and the Independent Directorate of Local Governance (IDLG) for the 2018 parliamentary elections in this AAN analysis.

(4) According to an Afghan government document, the programme generated 47.8 million days of work for skilled and unskilled workers. Between mid-2003 and early 2013, over 64,000 projects were funded by the NSP, at a combined cost of 1.01 billion US Dollars.

(5) AAN’s Ali Yawar Adili reported: “On 25 September 2016, President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Dr Abdullah Abdullah inaugurated a 10-year programme called Citizens’ Charter with the aim of improving services to the people. The Citizens Charter was one of the five documents that were presented to the Brussels Conference on 5 October 2016. The idea of the Citizens’ Charter originated from a Community Development Councils (CDCs) Jirga which was held in Kabul in 2014 and was also used by Ghani for this presidential campaign. The CDCs asked the president and government to continue the National Solidarity Programme (NSP). As a result, Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD), Independent Directorate of Local Governance (IDLG), Ministry of Public Health (MoPH), Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL) and Ministry of Education (MoE) with the coordination of the Ministry of Finance (MoF) developed the Citizens’ Charter which is now considered an evolution of the NSP.”

The Citizens’ Charter as planned would be rolled out in three phases, with each phase being three-years long. In the first and current phase of the project of four years from October 2016 to October 2020, a third of districts would be covered, in the second phase another third of districts, and in the last phase the final third of districts. However, the actual rollout was constrained by an evolving security environment that made project implementation significantly more difficult in many locations than had originally been anticipated during the planning stages. This has led to the belief that a time frame of ten years (up to 2026) is unrealistic and that the programme would realistically require about 15 years to be rolled out in all the districts in Afghanistan. Each phase is expected to cover around 12,000 rural communities, 600 urban communities and 120 urban gozars.

(6) The Citizens’ Charter Afghanistan Project (CCAP) is supported through the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF) and the World Bank. As with the NSP, it is implemented by the Ministry for Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD), with the help from international and local NGOs. The NGOs work directly with communities and help them to develop the socio-political analysis of their community. Based on these analyses, development projects are carefully selected and implemented at the community level under the auspice of MRRD. In short, the NGOs are delivering soft components of the programme, while the government is in charge of the hard (infrastructure) component.   

The services delivered through the Citizens’ Charter, according to the programmes’ website are implemented by 12,845 community district councils, elected since the project inception. These services include grants for electricity, road access/improvement, small-scale irrigation infrastructure (in rural areas), waste management, and/or other communal services (in urban areas) that are decided based on community prioritisation. Each community also gets access to clean drinking water. The Citizens’ Charter project also includes governance goals such as building strong Afghan institutions, from national to local levels, that are capable of planning and managing their own development and empowering local communities to monitor activities at the village level. The Afghan government plans to deepen this relationship with its citizens by providing development services and grants through CDCs and by using community oversight for service provision (see here).  

“The Citizens’ Charter (CC) is a promise of partnership between the state and the communities,” says the National Priority Programme, “It is a foundation stone for realising the Government’s development vision. The program is a whole-of-government effort to build state legitimacy and end fragmentation.”

(7) See footnote 5.


Citizens Charter Community-driven development national priority programs National Solidarity Programme peace process World Bank