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In Afghanistan: Governance Reform Through Survey Research

April 11, 2007

Achievements in Afghanistan’s political, social, and economic development may prove short-lived if donor, government, and public support for continued progress falter during the next several critical years of transition. The initial stages of transition have been difficult, with both donors and the Afghan government struggling to define their roles and responsibilities for a long-term development process, while coping with huge gaps in physical and human resources. Most importantly, as Afghan institutions fully assume governance functions, major efforts must continue to strengthen the core institutions of government in order to overcome challenges to the credibility and legitimacy of government. The Afghan government needs to deliver basic human security; accelerate reconstruction, development, and delivery of basic services; and reduce the impunity and sense of opportunism by elected and government officials.

In order to strengthen the legitimacy and credibility of the democratically-elected government, participation by non-state actors ” such as NGOs, the media, and individuals — needs to be broadened and deepened, and both state and non-state actors must have an accurate, common understanding of social and political conditions. Without it, information irregularities and misunderstandings between the two can be exacerbated, producing costly political battles. Public perceptions of national and local conditions are, therefore, of great interest to a wide range of individuals and institutions invested in Afghanistan’s development.

However, comprehensive and accurate demographic information to guide policy-making does not exist: the Afghan government often uses information developed from the 1979 census. Donors are only steps ahead, stitching together results of each others’ issue and needs-based assessments to craft their assistance programs. The Afghan media does not utilize rigorous research methods in covering policy-relevant issues. The dearth of Afghan organizations capable of rigorous survey research requires substantial investments in capacity building to support research-based policy reform.

In 2006, The Asia Foundation began a three-year research program in partnership with Afghan research organizations to address the lack of national and local data relevant to policy decisions and to build the capacity of Afghan organizations to conduct policy-relevant research. The Foundation’s public opinion poll Afghanistan in 2006: A Survey of the Afghan People and its recent companion, analytical volume State Building, Political Progress, and Human Security in Afghanistan: Reflections on a Survey of the Afghan People examine areas of intense current interest in Afghanistan, and describe how Afghans view their personal situation, democratic values, trust in formal and informal institutions, political progress, human security, women’s advancement, and other important developmental issues.

The findings of the poll indicate broad support for democracy as the best form of government in Afghanistan, even higher than many other nations in the South Asia region. Afghan understanding of the meaning of democracy has increased since 2004 as experience with democracy has grown. Afghans also express general support for key democratic values, such as equality for women and minority rights. At the same time, a substantial minority sees potential challenges between democratic and Islamic values ” and these sentiments have increased over time. Some Afghans are also hesitant to accept opposition parties that are a key element of electoral democracy. While the public broadly endorses democratic attitudes, the research finds that the political conflicts within Afghanistan can limit the willingness to express and act on these opinions.

Compared to what we might imagine the Afghan political culture to have been in 2001, the findings from the 2006 survey show dramatic signs of progress. Yet, it is clear that these democratic aspirations are too new to be deeply rooted in the Afghan political culture, and tensions exist with the Islamic values and traditions of Afghanistan. Poor security and deteriorating law and order are major impediments to reconstruction, development, and economic growth, as is dependence on the illegal opium industry. Continued insecurity and the slow advance of the reconstruction process could lead to renewed radicalization of forces within the country and reverse the progress that has been made.

The loss of Afghanistan’s brightest sons and daughters through decades of war, flight, and famine creates severe challenges in the near term. This adds to the economic, political, and social challenges that confront the country. The majority of Afghans who have survived or have returned now struggle to reconcile age-old tribal custom and practices, Islam, and modernity in the creation of a new country where women have equal opportunity, Islamic values are preserved, and government is effective and responsive. The Afghan people, for a number of reasons, do not yet perceive their individual agency in realizing the benefits of democracy. This will take time, and must be nurtured in deliberate, relevant, and culturally appropriate ways.

Dr. George Varughese is The Asia Foundation’s Deputy Country Representative in Afghanistan and the director of the largest public opinion poll ever conducted in Afghanistan and its newly released, companion analytical volume. Dr. Varughese will be discussing the survey in the San Francisco Bay Area on May 15th and in Washington, DC on May 22nd. To attend or for more information, contact kbrown@asiafound.org.

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