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Achieving Accountability through Afghanistan’s Community Development Program

Welcome back!

In the first blog post, we laid out the fragile separation of powers and constitutional framework for local accountability in Afghanistan. We concluded that despite official impunity enabled by the Constitution’s structure of separation of powers, a development program not traditionally viewed as a rule of law initiative has nevertheless made progress on rule of law objectives. In fact, the media and academic reports that widely criticize international efforts in Afghanistan make a notable exception for the National Solidarity Program (“NSP”).

Article 13 of the Afghan Constitution proclaims, “The State shall formulate and implement effective programs for development of industries, growth of production, increasing of public living standards, and support to craftsmanship.” Under this authorization, the Government of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD) created the NSP in 2002. The program’s goal is to increase Afghan communities’ capacities to identify, plan, manage and monitor their own development projects.

MRRD continues to administer funding from the International Development Assistance of the World Bank Group, the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund and other international donors. Its operations proceed as follows: NSP contracts with an international NGO that serves as the project’s “Facilitating Partner.” The Facilitating Partner (FP) introduces the program to villages across Afghanistan and, for those villages that decide they would like to participate, the FP guides the village in the process of choosing its community development council (CDC) by a secret ballot election.  High percentages of each community participate in these elections. These councils then reach consensus on community development priorities (“CDPs”) through consultation with the community. FPs played a key role in the success of NSPs, and the program made a strong contribution to an increased and more meaningful role of women in decision-making processes, including through representation in CDCs and increased voice in determining community investments. Careful training, selection and contract management are needed to ensure consistent implementation performance as the decrease in the flow of foreign funding to Afghanistan already constrained development programs including NSP and CDC.

While the program does not make achieving rule of law its explicit objective, the program has enabled community members to hold their elected CDC officials accountable. This is the first rule of law: holding the governing powers accountable and guarding against official arbitrariness.

Through the Grievance Handling Mechanism or the Grievance Redress Mechanism program that, includes a Grievance Handling Unit (“GHU”) in Kabul, Afghans have been able to voice objections to their elected council members and sanction misuse of power, through several avenues. One way is including a program-wide Community Participatory Monitoring system that allows local communities to monitor the sub-projects.

Additionally, the CDC program has been designed with the objective of maximizing transparency and accountability to stop corruption ex-ante. NSP requires CDCs to hold town-hall consultations with villagers to choose the priority project, report on the project status, and update community members on the use of funds. Council members are also required to keep public minutes at planning meetings as well as public record/log books that record procurement activities and financial transactions, minutes of meetings and training sessions.

Successes of the National Solidarity Program Central Financial Administration

NSP’s success at promoting rule of law undermines many justifications for the international community’s decision not to support the budget autonomy of local governments. Namely, it calls into question the international fear that decentralization would automatically lead to capture by local elites and that local governments lack the capacity to administer government programs.

The international community feared that local governments would be captured by local power elites who would not deliver public services to the general populace. However, there has been several studies of NSP documenting community members actually resisting strongmen who attempted to intimidate the election process.

Local Elections

A second factor explaining NSP’s success at ensuring accountability may be the program’s local elections of council members. Empirical studies have demonstrated the power of CDC elections to ensure accountability.

Legal structures in Afghanistan and local structures of governance such as the Jirga and Shura have historically constituted a critical base of governance and accountability. These bodies provide the local public goods and adjudicate local disputes, because Afghanistan’s central government has lacked the strength and resources to provide these services in many parts of the country. However, rule of law actors in Afghanistan may be susceptible to misuse of these traditional structures. As international efforts to deliver aid or implement programs have increasingly sought to use Jirgas or Shuras, more and more of these councils have sprung up and their membership include increasingly younger members whose social status may not yet be respected in the village. NSPs’ Shura therefore may not be comprised of traditional local government leaders, but rather new community members who conduct meetings using the facade of traditional procedures.

Afghanistan demonstrates the exceeding difficulty of pivoting from a highly centralized government to a decentralized one. Power has amassed in institutions and individuals that now will not readily relinquish authority. International efforts to promote rule of law in conflict societies must foremost ensure the first rule of law objective. A failure of accountability impedes the success of all other rule of law objectives. If power-holders can arbitrarily exert their will, people cannot predictably order their affairs and realize the other two rule of law objectives, namely judicial reform and open, clear, stable rules as well as ratifying international treaties and establishing the international human rights principles.

Future efforts at building rule of law in a transitioning conflict society should enable, within the constitution, local advantages that ensure accountability. In the next and final blog post, we will discuss the second and third objectives of rule of law, i.e. judicial reform and transparent, clearly defined, unchanging rules within the context of ratifying international treaties and establishing international human rights principles.

Until next week, how about thinking twice about the following reasoning: The structural solution that rule of law promises for development, human rights and security cannot be realized if the Constitution does not hold elected officials and power-holders accountable.