A Decade of Democratic Governance in Afghanistan: Has it Been Responsive to the Afghan Citizen?
By Rahela H. Sidiqi
Governance is the tradition and institution by which authority in a country is exercised. Democratic governance is when development is sustainable, human rights are respected, and the citizens of the country feel confident and secure; the government works inclusively with communities at the national and local level as partners in development for effective service delivery, to reinforce the rule of law for the protection of all, and to keep institutional performance accountable and transparent. It is where the leaders lead the country through mutual learning with a clear understanding of each other’s roles and responsibilities and their legal boundaries.  More importantly, it is where people are not made overtly aware of the government’s presence, but benefit from the effective service of the government, instead of being controlled by government.
After over a decade, the seeds of democratic governance are still in their embryonic stages in Afghanistan. Although some progress has been made with over two million girls registered in school, the establishment of several private universities, and the construction of a number of schools in urban areas to promote education, literacy levels remain stubbornly low with a 28.1% rate overall and female literacy at a measly 12.6%.  The public’s access to health facilities has improved, contributing to greater life expectancy and a decrease in infant and child mortality by 53% and 62% respectively. The civil society’s role in the development sector has improved, most notably with village level Community Development Councils (CDCs) engaged in the development.
With the deadline of the 2015 Millennium Development Goals (MGD) agenda this year and the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 2016-2030), especially its first goal, ‘End poverty in all its forms everywhere’, the next 15 years will be extremely challenging for Afghanistan. The Afghan government does not have the adequate capacity and/or the resources to achieve the sustainable development goal effectively. The central government’s capacity to design sound policies, and the capacity of the central and provincial government institutions to implement government policies, is weak; and this has resulted in weak human capacity within the governance institution, especially the government institutions. Consequently, the government has been unsuccessful in the implementation of MDG goals. Therefore, Afghanistan still has a long way to go before it meets the MDG and SDG goals of good and democratic governance. According to the former Minister of Public Health Dr. Suraya Dalil, an overwhelming number of people lack access to basic infrastructure such as housing, electricity, clean water, and health facilities, particularly in remote areas where 74% of the country’s population lives. Although there has been improved capacity in the central government, the capacities of provincial governments remain weak due to a number of factors, including corruption and the centralised structure of the government system.
More money was made available to support counter-terrorism activities in comparison to what was available for investment towards capacity building in democratic institutions and general economic development. As a result, Afghans suffered from both greater insecurity caused by the increased military activities and, inheriting a government that lacks the human capacity and commitment to work towards providing the aforementioned basic human services. The aid community failed to commit themselves to understanding the real needs of the Afghan population, and to invest with a focus on sustainable development. The current need of the Afghan government is to build constitutional governance institutions including the civil society organisations and private sector, and government could play a facilitating role. This article assesses the performance of some of these institutions with regard to service delivery and responsiveness, transparency and accountability, and implementation of the Rule of Law.
Service Delivery and Responsiveness of the Afghanistan Government
The Afghan government has difficulty responding to its citizen’s needs due to a number of factors , such as minimal guidance and leadership from the top, weak delegation of authority within the service delivery sector, unclear roles and responsibilities, and institutional incapacity, insecurity, human rights abuse, shrinking financial resources and. economic instability.
Minimal Guidance and Leadership from the Top
Afghans desire their leaders to lead the country based on national interests, and not the latter’s personal interests. The Afghan leaders’ lack of a clear vision, poor capacity to effectively apply the governance system, and the absence of service delivery standards, has resulted in a situation where citizens have lost trust in government institutions towards solving their problems. An example of the government’s inadequate service delivery includes the most recent elections, which were shrouded in doubt and suspicion. There were numerous accusations of electoral fraud during the presidential and provincial council election processes in 2009 and 2014. The perceived influence of the government in the election commission’s decisions led many to conclude that the election commission’s “independence” were merely in name.
Weak Delegation of Authority within the Service Delivery Sectors
Likewise, the main impediment to effective service delivery is the centralisation of the government system. Centralisation undermines the role of the provincial counterparts by limiting their integration into the overall service delivery process by not delegating power and authority to provincial heads which would have allowed them to participate in the sub-planning and decision-making processes. Some examples of this issue are: the ministry’s recruitment and performance evaluations of provincial level senior civil servants conducted without involving provincial representatives; and the centralised execution of province-based service contracts.
As a former Senior Advisor, Independent Administrative Reform and Civil Service Commission, I have seen that under such constraints, provincial heads have very little knowledge or discretionary control over their staff and budgets to improve their service delivery performance or to stimulate their local economy and rural unemployment, particularly those of females – which has grave social repercussions.
Additionally, there is no clear division of tasks between the Governor’s Office and the ministries. Legal frameworks are developed without the engagement of relevant provincial authorities. The central government, to a large extent, has been limiting the autonomy of the provincial government. For example, recruitment and performance evaluations of senior civil servants assigned at the province level are carried out at the ministerial level and without inputs from representatives of the provincial governments. Likewise, the delegation of tasks for senior staff is top down. Therefore, clarity on the percentage of the provincial revenue to be ideally re-invested directly to the provinces for service delivery purposes is inadequate. Service contracts are signed at the Centre.
Unclear Roles and Responsibilities and Weak Institutional Capacity
Largely, the Afghan public has limited awareness about their legal rights and responsibilities. There is no joint planning conducted with communities as a partner for development. There are no district level councils or community-level legal representatives. The capacities of the provincial councils are not developed enough to enable them to represent their people with advanced knowledge and skills for better advocacy and planning. Furthermore, village level CDCs are not effectively engaged as an active participant in the development processes.
Therefore, in most cases, the government and civil society influence the role of the public. As observed in the 2014 Human Development Report, the multidimensional poverty level is high in Afghanistan. While 36% of the population lives below the national poverty line, there are provinces that have higher levels of poverty. For example, 73% of the population lives below the poverty line in Paktia province.
Although the capacities of provincial governments are weak, there have been improvements in the capacity of the central government. However, there still are duplications of tasks within and among the ministries. For example, duplication is witnessed between the Ministry of Economy and the Ministry of Finance; the Ministry of Economy and the Ministry of Commerce; and the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Water and Electricity. Also, at the heart of government, duplication takes place between the president, vice president and the office of the chief of staff. Furthermore, there is duplication of tasks between the ministers and deputy ministers due to the lack of clarity regarding the division of tasks. In some cases, those confidants closest to the ministers take on more responsibility and therefore gain much authority. This leads to duplication of tasks and confusion for government employees and beneficiaries. Moreover, positions are often created to employ an individual as opposed to based on the requirement of the position. In some cases, required positions are eliminated due to ministerial opposition to a particular individual. These events occur with collusion amongst high-level personnel within the organisations. Furthermore, bureaucratic processes coupled with increased levels of corruption have hampered the efficient delivery of services.
Besides, administrative reform is affected by political influence, corruption, a culture of impunity and favoritism. Monitoring and supervision processes and building the capacities of employees is another issue that impacts service delivery. There is no linkage between capacity building and performance evaluation, so as to enhance employees’ capacities based on their need. This is the case particularly at the provincial level. This also affects employees on gradual bases, which may result in their departure. There is also a problem of developing the employees’ belief in a system for results-based performance and where there is no effective system to award those who perform better. Additionally, the action of unfair punishment of employees by senior leaders affects the motivations of employees and limits their creativity. Another important issue is that of the low participation of women in the government structures. Women occupy approximately 2% of grade one positions within the civil service machinery. Currently, women’s presence in other positions of the civil service is at 19% compared to 24% in 2004. Although 25% of the Afghan Members of Parliament are female, with regard to executive political positions, women occupy only 2% of positions in 42 ministries and agencies.
Insecurity and Human Rights Abuse
Over the past few months of 2015, Afghans have been living in insecurity with an increased number of civilian casualties. The security situation across the country has dramatically deteriorated over the past two years with a 22% increase in civilian casualties in 2014 and an additional 4% increase in civilian causalities in 2015.  The recently signed security agreement between the Afghan government and the U.S. with the help of Pakistan, to initiate peace negotiations with the Taliban, has failed to reassure the public of the government’s ability to reverse the situation and put the country back on the path to stability. The government’s failure to include the public as a partner in the peace process has been a major failure. The involvement of provincial and district councils have been circumvented in the peace process, and considering the number of civilian lives that have been lost or destroyed in the fighting, the government has squandered another opportunity to win the people’s trust and use these powerful representatives of public opinion to gain a foothold towards peace. Civilian casualties increased by 22% in 2014, and there has been an increase in deaths and injuries 1% and 4% respectively, in 2015.  There is a perception that the National Unity Government (NUG) does not work in harmony and that they have not recruited professional and qualified people.
The other issue is the increase of human rights abuses, and the abuses of women’s rights linked to growing insecurity, in particular. Women’s rights activists claim that exclusion from peace talks undermines their role as partners in development. Research has shown that the problem of human rights abuses is mainly due to insecurity. Over 70% of women experience early marriage and 78% face at least one type of violence. The exercise of baad – where girls are given to resolve honour killing –, burning, assault, sexual abuse and harassment occurs in remote and insecure areas.
Economical Instability and Financial Shrinking
There are now enhanced policies and efforts being made to support production and the value chain – which is in essence trying to create niche markets that are able to compete with imported products. Afghanistan is in the process becoming a signatory to the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Once complete, this should help create a more conducive and enabling environment for niche market development and to support the value chain more effectively, whereby raw materials and products are Afghan owned and developed. However, in the last decade, economic development processes in Afghanistan have been ad hoc because of ineffective investment by the international community. Employment opportunities were also poor and were not sustained over the long term. There has been no effective legal framework to support the sustained and gradual advancement of local production. The practice of open markets with no government control made local producers vulnerable. Therefore, Afghan citizens continue to purchase poor quality goods from neighbouring countries, while also losing most of their small scales business. Import substitution entering Afghanistan as a result of cheaper raw material and produce from Pakistan and India has led to small-scale agricultural production. The government’s economic development efforts have been ineffective in sustaining any kind of continued growth and investment in the business sector. While there have been short term gains in employment, and support to small business initiatives, expertise and finances invested in building the capacities of local business and associated infrastructure to sustain the economic development process have been insufficient.
Also, the processes of economic development and loan provision services are mostly not in line with moral building, community support, and literacy and business management capacities. The decline in the country’s economic growth and the decrease in job opportunities have resulted in a ‘brain drain’ from Afghanistan. Development practitioners believe that democratic institutions are the key elements for establishing democratic governance to build unity for inclusive and participatory socio-economic development, one that is owned by the Afghan people.
Aid community contribution and financial resources should be invested based on the realistic needs of the Afghan community by building foundation infrastructures. This has to be carried out in order to create more job opportunities via the mobilisation of internal resources, introduction of new technologies, and the establishment of small, medium and large factories.
The following section deals with the rise in the number of civil society organisations providing the public with audio and print media, many of which, at the risk of their own safety, have been critical of the government’s poor performance in matters of transparency and accountability.
‘If information and knowledge are central to democracy, they are conditions for development’.
The Degree of Transparency and Accountability
One way of increasing transparency and accountability is by implementing and enforcing the Access to Information Law (Law) that was passed on 09 December 2014. The passing of the Law guaranteed the Afghan citizens’ constitutional right to government information, and was a positive step towards government reforms to tackle corruption and to promote transparency and accountability. Article 32, Chapter Six is consistent with the best international practices and specifically mentions in Article Two the rights of citizens to access to information held by the government and to ensure transparency and accountability in the performance of government.
Improved access and coordinated implementation of the Law by civil society organisations tasked with research and advocacy responsibilities could improve government accountability. The government’s profile would improve considerably in the eyes of the public by respecting the voters and exposing the election fraud – that was alleged during the 2009 and 2014 presidential elections. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) and the Equality for Peace and Democracy (EPD) monitored the government’s performance under their purview and concluded in their report that they have seen improvement. However, the independence of the AIHRC and the EPD has raised skepticism among activists and human rights organisations, because all the AIHRC and the EPD staff are appointed by a presidential decree as opposed to an open and merit-based recruitment.
Real reform needs to lead top down if there has to be any improvement in the government’s contract and bidding process. When compromised, this is one area where private-public partnerships expose the government to considerable criticism, as has been seen and reported frequently by the media and civil society.
Civil society organisations’ audio and other media activities, in particular, have been effective in highlighting a lack of transparency and accountability within the government. However, in terms of capacity and coverage, the performances of civil society institutions at the provincial level are inadequate to monitor the performance of the provincial governments. There is a duplication of tasks among and within these organisations in some areas. For instance, there is no effective sector-wise consortium and division of tasks within the sector to monitor the performance of government sectors with better knowledge and skills. As a result, effective cooperation is not common practice. Likewise, the cooperation between the private sector and the NGOs seems inadequate.
The Capacity to Implement the Rule of Law
The creation of a sound legal framework and the implementation of the rule of law is central to the success of any democratic state. In 2004, Afghanistan’s Loya Jirga approved the most recent version of the Afghan constitution and began the process of developing a legal framework, signaling a move towards economic and social progress. However, a recent survey conducted by the World Justice Program (WJP) on how the rule of law is experienced by citizens ranked Afghanistan at 101st of the 102 surveyed countries vis-à-vis the levels of justice, corruption, and governance. Afghanistan’s problem does not appear to lie in the incapacity of institutions but instead in the commitment of the leadership to lead its citizens to take charge of change. The WJP survey states that “all elements of society are stakeholders that strengthen the rule of law and that change only comes from within.” It will take at least a generation before the people gain the capacity and begin believing that they have the power that builds strong and sustainable democratic governance that protects the rule of law for its citizens.
- Service Delivery and Responsiveness
The senior leadership of the government should shift the practice of unity from rhetoric to reality. The individuals in the organisation’s structure, and not the leader’s speeches alone, can deliver unity if the hearts and minds of leaders are not focused on building national unity and are not committed to the national interest. Therefore, the focus of each member of the government, civil society, private sector organisations, and community leaders, should be on a commitment towards meeting national interests, over their own personal interests. It is the responsibility of every Afghan citizen to ensure their leaders’ focus on national interests.
- Adequate Guidance and Leadership from the Top
The government’s vision should be comprehensively developed and integrated. The strategic vision of ministries should be developed via a ‘bottom up’ approach, drawing on consultations and with the engagement of lower grade employees and, where applicable, communities, as partners in development.
The professional skills and potential of the Afghan citizens should be used for the benefit of the Afghan public. The level of cooperation for merit and gender-based political appointments by the president and Chief Executive Officers should be top priority. The creation of more positions in the organisational structures will not help productivity if qualified and technical people are not placed in leading positions at all levels. Political leaders should increase their trust in the country’s qualified cadres, and not to their parties’ membership alone. Political leaders have an obligation to put their promises into practice, in the coming decades. They should not compromise on keeping or injecting unqualified people into the government machinery and all other institutions that contribute to Afghanistan’s development.
Ministers need to recruit qualified people in the structure of their respective ministries. They should build trust and faith amongst employees to enhance effective services. The government should also engage communities in the process of development to deliver an effective and sustainable development approach. In Afghanistan, the National Solidarity Program (NSP) is the best model for community engagement. The presence of CDCs, including women and men, should be extended and their capacities should be built. Greater ownership should be given to the CDCs. Female members of the CDCs should be more empowered via capacity building and by increasing their engagement in the decision-making process.
- Institutional Capacity, Roles and Responsibilities
The international community should consider the enhancement of the Afghans’ capacities seriously to ensure that the latter are able to take control of the development processes in their country. The need for building women’s capacities is significant. Service delivery to women in rural areas should also be a priority. For example, if health and education services are delivered by male teachers and doctors, they become inaccessible to women in rural areas. A majority of girls do not attend secondary school. The ratio of girls to boys attending school is 1:4, and in rural areas 80% of girls do not attend secondary school. Moreover, there are multiple reasons such as early marriage, absence of female teachers, distance, and insecurity that function as stumbling blocks. Therefore, the enhancement of the capacities of Afghan women and the development of an enabling environment should be a top priority of the international community and the Afghan government. Additionally, it is a global responsibility to support the world’s population in the areas of basic human rights. Therefore, attention should be paid to the 36% of the total Afghan population that currently lives below the poverty line. Assistance should also be considered for people who live in insecure areas. Experienced practitioners at the field level suggest considering a risk management approach. Research and observation shows that the contribution of the Afghan NGOs in this regard will increase if they are fully engaged and adequate financial resources are made available. This, particularly with increased capacities of female-run NGOs will improve and enhance delivery of services. Likewise, transparency in the service delivery systems should be a precondition for securing financial support from the international community.
The engagement of women and youth in the process of development, and the establishment of democratic institutions, is a must. Employees aged 55 years and above should be retired and given retirement benefits by the government. Existing employees should be offered periodic trainings in all areas relevant to their performance and productivity. State and private universities should consider matching education to employer needs, under the guidance of the government.
Merit should be the basis for government employment as opposed to political affiliation. The growing epidemic of ‘brain drain’ should be tackled. The salary scale of the present government is not based on international standards, as there are no additional health benefits, land or housing insurance, or potential salary increases. Therefore, there is a need for the international community and the Afghan government to find mid and long-term solutions to enable and ensure qualified government employees remain in the government. The Civil Service Commission needs to develop a more comprehensive and transparent recruitment process in accordance to labour laws and civil service laws.
- Delegation of Authority and Autonomy of Independent Organisations
- Independent organisations such as independent commissions should work with increased autonomy and should be able to hold the government accountable. Their independence should not be influenced or undermined by ruling dispensations. Therefore, the appointments of commissioners should be independent of government control. Their recruitment should be merit-based and carried out under the observation of the civil society and the international community. The Independent Election Commission in particular requires total independence. They should be able to work independently and without the fear of losing their jobs.
The other area is increasing transparency in the competitive contractual bidding process. The government should consider penalties for any official who shows favoritism, to avoid the misuse of national resources.
- Economical Development and Financial investment
The international community should further invest in Afghanistan’s development, and long-term financial support over the coming 25 years should be considered. Long-term planning and investment plans should be published and be made accessible for the public to build hope and confidence among the citizens regarding the future development of their country. The donor community should also be held accountable for their performance so that their mistakes can be avoided in the future. Afghanistan’s sustainable development needs the international community to continue supporting economic infrastructure development. Investment should be based on the needs of Afghan citizens. They must revisit their investments of the past decade, identify gaps in their ways of assistance, and avoid past mistakes. With industrial and agricultural giants such as China, India and Pakistan for neighbours, Afghanistan’s agricultural sector and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) need an extended period of professional mentoring and infrastructural support if they are to find their niche and compete regionally.
Some have called for a legal framework that would protect local producers from the many foreign products that flood the country’s markets. Cash-for-work programs of donor agencies have been effective and appreciated by the public. However, their short-term nature and rapid mobilisation fail to provide appropriate skills and/or long-term stability to workers who, once project activities are complete, are forced to return to subsistent farming, taking up weapons, or to migrate in search of better employment opportunities.
A more systematic, long-term approach coordinated by all stakeholders towards a sustainable, appropriate, and market-driven model that contributes to the economic and social growth, is required.
- Insecurity and Civilian Rights
According to Articles 24, 54 and Number 3 of Article 75 of the Afghanistan constitution, the government is responsible for the safety and security of their citizens.
It is the responsibility of the government security departments to inform the citizens about high-degree security threats (i.e Jalalabad and Kunduz) in time and help them make their decisions for their lives. For example, the security departments should have informed the residents of Jalalabad and Kunduz of the imminent threat of the Islamic State and the Taliban to their homes and families. The government’s counter offensives against the insurgents should ensure that the lives of the Afghans are not affected. The citizens should be informed of the government’s emergency management plan and of the resources for relocating the former during extremely deteriorated situations. Insurgents and the Afghan people should make their decision. The government should inform the Afghans of the possible support they can or cannot provide. They should also consider their negotiations with international aid organisations to ensure timely emergency support time. The casualties and damages incurred by different organisations and the households based in Jalalabad and Kunduz, as well as human rights abuses – especially those of women – would not have taken place if the government would have informed the people in advance. At least people casualty and sudden killing could have been reduced.
- Increase Transparency and Accountability
All elements of the society are stakeholders in the rule of law and should therefore support the full implementation of the ATI Law as fundamental to keeping Afghanistan’s governance system transparent and accountable. As recommended by the South Asia Transparency Advisory Group and the Integrity Watch report, the Afghan parliament should amend the ATI Law to enable a more effective implementation of the law.  Under the Afghan Constitution and the ATI Law, the public has a right to be aware of the government’s actions and the government has the duty to keep the public informed of its activities. A national campaign sensitive to the national literacy rates, and appropriate to local contexts, should be launched to raise awareness of the ATI Law.
All employees currently employed by the government should be made sufficiently literate to read and understand the government’s code of conduct. All new government employees should meet minimal education requirements and all literate staff should be held accountable to the code of conduct in order to eradicate corruption from the system.
- Enforcement of Rule of Law: Enforcement of the Rule of Law
The first step towards building democratic governance is for those tasked with leading it to value its principles and understand and practice its disciplines. Afghan citizens desire that the focus of all actors and contributors should turn towards sustainable development.
One sign of democratic governance at work is the community’s ownership of their own development issues, such as security, socio-cultural and economic affairs. Partnering with communities by building their capacities and leveraging the ‘People Power’ to assist communities with self-governance will lead to safer and more productive citizens.
This approach could:
- Facilitate rapid mobilisation
- Apply appropriate solutions identified via continued consultation and the decision-making processes of the partnering communities
- Reach and mobilise the otherwise marginalised groups such as women and youth
- Leverage community ownership and contribution, as communities are ready to provide land, and contribute resources.
The capacities of the civil society and social media institutions need to be developed and enhanced to increase and expand their coverage in and to remote areas. Their proactive approach towards demand information and evidence from the government should be increased at all levels.
The Diaspora’s role in the development process is an underutilised resource and needs to be increased. The capacities of the youth and women need to be built so that they can take up leadership and technical positions in government, civil society, and private sectors.
Article publish in Afghanistan in Women and Public Policy Magazine.
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