Weekly Insights and Analysis

Afghanistan’s Governors Address On-the-Ground Realities

June 16, 2010

By Jean-Louis Van Belle

It has become a cliché to say that the only realities in Afghanistan are local realities: the Himalayan Hindu Kush separates the northern plains from the southern wastelands, and Afghanistan’s diverse regions are inhabited by very different ethnic groups that – because fertile land is so scarce – do not always find it easy to accommodate each other. The realities in the south and east are further complicated by the existence of numerous tribes with historically troubled relationships even though they share the same Pashto nationalist creed. So rivalry and conflict in Afghanistan is – to a large extent – local rivalry and local conflict. Afghanistan’s rapidly growing cities now present real development problems as well.


Afghanistan’s diverse regions are inhabited by very different ethnic groups that – because fertile land is so scarce – do not always find it easy to accommodate each other.

The longer-term conflict in Afghanistan is not political: it is economic. It is about resources, development, governance, and about managing the rapidly growing rural-urban divide. It is the same type of conflict that is dragging down other South Asian countries. This is evidenced by The Asia Foundation’s 2009 Afghan poll, which found that the majority of Afghans link insecurity more to racketeering, theft, extortion, and criminal violence than to the threat of insurgents.

Despite this, most of what is going on in Afghanistan is driven by decisions made in international gatherings far removed from such local reflections, and these decisions do not often seem to take such realities into account. For instance, the new military approach emphasizes “situational awareness” more than ever, but the relationship between the international military forces carrying out that approach and the local populations they are supposed to be working with remains very uneasy, and the gap between good intentions and what is actually being done on the ground has only widened.

So it is with local governance itself, unfortunately. In recent years, the international community in Afghanistan has embraced the theme of sub-national governance as a panacea for all of the complex problems Afghanistan faces. In 2007, such enthusiasm led to the creation of the Independent Directorate of Local Governance (IDLG). As it turned out, it took more than two years to get the IDLG up and running, and many of the problems that plagued the Ministry of Interior at the time – which was in charge of sub-national governance before this new “independent” administration was set up – also undermine the effectiveness of the IDLG today. The capacity-building projects over the past two and a half years have not had any significant impact on badly-paid civil servants, for example. Also, because of lack of management capacity, IDLG’s leadership still depends heavily on donor-paid program staff, which raises legitimate questions in regard to sustainability. Finally, it would be hard to argue that the IDLG – which reports directly to the President – does not suffer from the various forms of patronage that are endemic to all Afghan government administrations.

That being said, the IDLG and the international enthusiasm for local governance seem to be here to stay, as evidenced by the attention this theme is getting in the run-up to the next international conference on July 20 in Kabul. This is very good news. It took too much time – especially since time is not only measured in terms of financial cost but also in terms of lives in Afghanistan – to get the Sub-National Governance Policy approved by the Cabinet (the draft was published in 2008, but the Afghan government only endorsed it on March 22, 2010). Now that the new Policy is approved, donors and the international community are initiating the programs that are needed to support its objectives. For example, USAID’s new Municipal Governance Support Program fortunately seems to have been endowed with the resources that are needed to effectively address the needs of Afghanistan’s fast growing cities and municipalities.

Amid the programs supporting the goals of the IDLG policy, the Performance-Based Governors Fund (PBGF), managed by The Asia Foundation, has emerged as a player over the past few months. Despite its relatively small size, the IDLG promotes it as a new strategic national program. The prime objective of the PBGF program is to bridge the gap between the Afghan people and their local government by providing all 34 governors of Afghanistan with a flexible budget of $25,000 per month to cover both operational expenditures as well as community outreach needs in their provinces. The pilot program provides direct budget support to governors who, as the representatives of the president in their provinces, are the most important and visible sub-national authorities in Afghanistan.

Afghan Governors

With support from PBGF, The governor of Samangan province meet to discuss local issues with elders, scholars, and citizens of Hazrat Sultan district.

In light of Transparency International’s ranking of Afghanistan as the “second most corrupt country of the world” (after Somalia), most observers shook their heads in disbelief when the IDLG and donor ambassadors (U.S., U.K., and Belgium) launched the PBGF at the Afghan Government’s Media and Information Center on January 20 this year. But skeptics can now visit the website to find out exactly what governors have done and are doing with the $25,000 per month they have received so far. Detailed budgets and financial expenditure accounts are online, as well as letters of appreciation and success stories, written by the governors themselves, that bear witness to the rapid success of the program and the fact that corruption is a result of system failure and bad incentives. Good systems make for good programs in any country, including Afghanistan.

The program also lays the foundations for a long-term performance-based incentive program for provincial governors to improve their planning, budgeting, and auditing capacity. Each governor’s budget is tightly monitored and evaluated through a quantitative scoring mechanism that singles out “bad” from “average” and “good” performances, and governors are well aware that next year’s fund allocation will be adjusted according to performance.

Such lofty goals risk sounding hollow in the context of Afghanistan. However, the success stories told prove this is more than just talk: the modest PBGF funds in comparison to the amounts involved in other programs have not only allowed governors to support basic, everyday essentials needed to keep their office functioning, like paying for an Internet connection, but also community needs, like watering the 10,000 dying trees in Kandahar’s famous and holy Eidgah Garden – one of the few places that offers shade and a favorite family gathering place for Kandaharis. It also allows governors to react rapidly to such requests as the need for additional classrooms for a girls’ school in Faryab province, or the need to quickly build a flood protection wall to protect villages in the flood-affected district of Jawzjan province. In Laghman province, the governor is using the fund to reduce poppy cultivation and disarm illegal armed groups.

At The Asia Foundation, we approach sub-national governance in Afghanistan from the perspective that it’s the local people who matter. It is immensely rewarding to visit a provincial capital such as Lashkargah and to sit down with the governor there to discuss what we can achieve together in the very near term with these resources, which, although limited, can in fact accomplish a great deal on the ground.

Jean-Louis Van Belle is The Asia Foundation’s Chief of Party for the Performance Based Governors Fund (PBGF) in Afghanistan and the Head of its Sub-National Governance unit. He can be reached at The PBGF program is funded by USAID, UKAID, and the Kingdom of Belgium.

Related locations: Afghanistan
Related programs: Conflict and Fragile Conditions, Strengthen Governance


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