KABUL — Reform in Afghanistan has proven to be no easy task. Though the 2001 Bonn Agreement laid framework for a democratic state, years of war and corruption have prevented ordinary Afghans from participating and reaping the benefits of new political institutions. Most Afghans have a deep distrust in government. In a 2009 Oxfam survey of ordinary Afghans, more than half said that corruption and the ineffectiveness of their government were to blame for the continued violence in the region.
For these reasons, the role of Afghan Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) has never been more crucial. Existing outside of government, civil society is comprised of institutions formed at the will of citizens. Tribal and religious councils are the most traditional organizations in Afghanistan, but were not officially acknowledged as CSOs until the second Bonn Conference in 2011. Today, CSOs in Afghanistan are growing and becoming more recognized in the national and international community.
As of August 2015, there are 5,789 associations and 2,060 NGOs registered with the Ministry of Economy. Most of civil society is dominated by young, educated Afghans working towards entrepreneurial or socially progressive causes. These registered CSOs in Afghanistan include social responsibility groups addressing issues like women’s rights, children’s rights, civic engagement, education and the environment. Many are professional groups bringing together entrepreneurs and practitioners the public and private sectors.
The efforts of many of these CSOs in Afghanistan have contributed to creating a vibrant democratic society. Many CSOs work to endorse laws and amendments, some of which address reform in the CSO sector itself. In 2015, CSOs and activists marched in Kabul and other provinces to urge the government to take action to stop ethnic violence and violence against women.
Today, more than 45 percent of CSOs claim that women are the main beneficiaries of their programs, an 18 percent increase since 2005. There has been an increase in women’s involvement on staff and as volunteers in CSOs. More women’s organizations are becoming more involved with policy making at local and international levels.
CSOs in Afghanistan are a growing presence in the international community, and represent the country at international diplomatic gatherings. One example of this was the 2012 Toyko Conference, in which Afghanistan’s allies addressed ways to support the country in the coming decade. There, 30 members of Afghan Civil Society participated in an ‘Afghan Civil Society Voices Conference’ conjunction with Japanese CSOs. This conference produced a joint verdict on the Tokyo Declaration and outlined areas they agreed on and areas they felt needed more attention.
Despite the success of many CSOs, there is a rift between rural and urban Afghanistan in terms of issues and accessibility. In 2002, CSOs addressing more local issues like of health, sanitation, infrastructure and conflict resolution have been replaced with those addressing education, promoting human rights, youth programs and advocating for gender equality. Eighty percent of Afghans live in rural areas, and may consider the former issues more important. This rift is partially due to the security issues outside urban areas, forcing CSOs to operate within cities. However, the focus of CSOs has also shifted in order to meet changing donor interests. Even CSOs in rural areas are forced to adapt in order to gain notoriety and funding.
Because democracy in Afghanistan is so new, reform is slow at the national level. Political parties aren’t well-established enough to have a real strategic vision that comes with party rivalries and administration change. Instead, civil society is flourishing. Having recognized this, the international community should continue to aid and collaborate with Afghan CSOs going forward.
– Hannah Seitz