Notes from the Field

From Afghanistan, Some Good News

July 22, 2009

These days, few good news stories reach the international and Afghan press. The process of re-building a nation’s infrastructure, its government systems – and the physical and emotional strength of a fragile citizenry – can be incremental and painfully slow.

In Afghanistan, citizens complain about the lack of government services, lack of leadership, and widespread corruption. Findings from The Asia Foundation’s 2008 “Survey of the Afghan People” show that there is a clear trend towards greater pessimism in the country and that 66 percent believe that the government is not effective in countering corruption. This is compounded by peoples’ general lack of trust in the government and of those from outside of their communities. This mistrust contributes to a divide between the people and their government, and between regions and ethnic groups.

Yes, there are many huge problems here. But as an Afghan woman I do have hope. My life has been unblocked emotionally, intellectually, and professionally since 2001. Now I am able to openly debate issues with my extended family and friends and publish my own opinions in our newspapers, and I have seen with my own eyes the smaller, key pieces that are effective and could inspire all Afghans to have confidence in their government.

I believe that if we in Afghanistan have the pieces in place that make democratic governance work, sustainable progress will emerge in the long-term. In addition, with presidential and provincial council elections less than a month away, a focus on women’s participation in elections, governance, and education is vital. In order for Afghanistan to succeed, half of its population must be engaged in making progress.

Here are some examples of what we are doing to meet these challenges, ensure women’s participation along the way, and why I am optimistic for the future.

First, elections. Civic education for the country is crucial, especially in areas often untouched by the government: the so-called “Red Zones” of Kandahar, Helmand, and Uruzgan. These provinces inherently require local, grassroots solutions. There, we work with Afghan organizations to share information about civic rights, the election process, and the government’s responsibilities. Pairs of men and women (normally siblings or spouses) venture out to talk face-to-face with their friends, neighbors, and family. Conducting these activities helps to bridge the divide between the government and the people as well as to build relationships and trust among the community.

Radio broadcasts on elections and other civic issues amplify these efforts. Using Afghans well-versed in local languages and accents, the broadcasts provide neutral information, which isn’t perceived as suspect. Public service announcements and radio dramas also build the financial and technical capacity of the fledgling private local media. They encourage people to think about national unity and how to positively influence cultural changes, such as participatory decision-making. After decades of fighting and conflict, these broadcasts are contributing to building – not destroying – society.

A volunteer culture is also being re-introduced in Afghanistan, and youth and women are leading the way. By increasing women’s knowledge about elections, Afghan civic educators are greatly enhancing the number of women observers who will be present in voting stations on August 20, 2009. On election day, professionally-trained women observers will support and protect women’s participation in the voting process. Being active in the elections gives women opportunity to leave their homes to engage in public life and form a community with other women who, when together, can make a strong impact. Young voters, too, are key to contributing to change: they receive leaflets and posters from school, and then bring them home for their families.

Whether citizens join together under apricot trees or in family compounds, these education activities spur dialogue in rural areas. The forums foster debate and contribute to the confidence and assurance that Afghans have the right to make their own decisions in who should lead their country.

Second, governance. Thanks to the constitutionally required quota for women in parliament, there are 91 female Members of the National Assembly (in both upper and lower houses). Today, they sit side-by-side with Mulla Rocketi, a former senior member of the Taliban, who from 1996 to 2001 prohibited women from working outside of their homes. To help both the new parliamentarians legislate and civil servants run the brand new Office of Parliamentary Affairs, The Asia Foundation began in-depth, daily training. This has helped staff focus on fundamental governance and management skills as alternatives to nepotism and traditional top-down decision-making. Training has also allowed for staff visits to meet their contemporaries in India and Malaysia, expanding their worldviews and bringing critical and strategic thinking to their own work environment.

Third, education. The National Women’s Dormitory at Kabul University was opened in 2004, but, the Ministry of Higher Education has not yet been able to provide full management and funding for the newly-refurbished dormitory. Over 1,000 female university and polytechnic students from homes outside of Kabul live there while attending the nation’s best higher education institutes. The Asia Foundation has been providing safe housing, food, and programming for these women who will be Afghanistan’s future doctors, lawyers, and engineers.

The Asia Foundation is dedicated to Afghan-led development. By focusing on elections, governance, and education – and ensuring women’s participation in them all – we are building trust between Afghans and their wider communities.

Since 2001, I have watched my fellow Afghans’ minds open as they gain access to new information and experiences through the Internet, the rapidly expanding mobile telephone systems, and private media companies. When initiatives are not internationally imposed and when Afghans have the opportunity to be involved, they take ownership and care for the results because they are involved not just physically but also morally. This is good news.

Najla Ayubi and Susan Reesor are Technical Advisors with The Asia Foundation in Afghanistan. Najla Ayubi is Afghan, a former judge, and a former commissioner with the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan. Susan Reesor is Canadian, a development specialist who has worked for NGOs in Canada, Cambodia, and Afghanistan for 20 years. They can be reached in the Afghanistan office at tafag@asiafound.org.

View all posts by Najla Ayubi | Bio

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