7Over the last 17 years, the support of USAID and other donors helped transform Afghan civil society and media from a loose network of intellectuals, religious communities, and tribal affiliations to a more formal organization that advocates for citizens’ interests. The inflow of foreign aid boosted not only the financial but also the technical capacity of civil society and media organizations. Consequently, these associations have increased their operational capacity to manage donor funds, develop advocacy skills, and establish significant relationships with communities and Afghan government institutions.
Overall, the amplified role of civil society and media has positively influenced legislation. Legal reforms have created a space for civil society activists to participate in the national budgeting process or champion the latest campaign of local networks to amend the Access to Information Law. These accomplishments starkly contrast the restrictive amendments proposed by the Ministry of Economy to the NGO Law, demonstrating that civil society is active, well-organized, and able to address concerning issues by the government.
Yet this foreign aid also fosters dependency, making civil society unlikely to develop its own solutions, organizational strategies, and innovations. Conditionality of foreign funding, control over assets, and funds are known factors that negatively influence the organic and grassroots growth of civil society. Donors and funding modalities affect CSOs’ behaviour and create imbalances between those who speak donor jargon and small grassroots players without access to urban centres and key networks with international stakeholders. These groups are unequal in terms of wealth, power, access to resources, or political status.
In Afghanistan, the significant division between rural and urban areas further exacerbates mistrust. About 70% of the population lives in rural areas. Unsurprisingly, networking and relationship-building opportunities are more accessible for larger and urban organizations. These asymmetric relations create deeper divides between local constituents and support allegations of self-enrichment and corruption that tarnish the reputation of the civil society sector in Afghanistan. As a result, CSOs dependent on foreign funding struggle to assert their autonomy and credibility to their constituencies, which prevents them from creating programmes that would bring sustainable solutions. That is, these solutions do not belong to the masses.
Addressing this disconnect is critical for peace-building. In a post-conflict context, civil society plays a critical role in peacebuilding, development, and stabilisation efforts, representing the interests of the most vulnerable and diverse communities in negotiations and policymaking processes. While strengthening civil society is key for building the social contract between citizens and the government, the absence of an equitable distribution of power, trust, and self-sufficiency hamper the credibility of civil society voices in the peace process. Many citizens view civil society as a foreign creation representing Western values, rather than an organic part of modern Afghan society, complementing the government and private sectors. The Survey of the Afghan People found that respondents place less confidence in national CSOs than community development councils, community shuras, or religious leaders. The recently published survey “People’s Perceptions on the Peace Process” echoes this result. Around two-fifths said the state would effectively represent their interests (39%), followed by representatives of war victims (15%), and civil society (13%). These dynamics affect the role of civil society in the peace process and how different segments of society—particularly marginalized groups like women—will be represented.
Although funding from foreign countries remains critical to peace-building, impartiality remains a concern. Supporting peace negotiations provides donors with leverage, allowing them to directly influence and shape the process—for instance, select negotiating parties or set the agenda. For instance, funding for peace negotiations requiring to work with particular groups that have not been blacklisted or do not face any legal constraints. Furthermore, funding modalities are sometimes unsuitable for peace negotiations. The project-oriented approach comes with prescribed implementation provisions for negotiators, limiting the flexibility that is crucial for unexpected changes in the process.
Syria and Myanmar demonstrate the significance of this constraint. In Syria, a variety of funding streams provided direct funds to the peace talks. Each donor brought specific requirements, provisions, deadlines and expectations. To some extent, this led to a project-driven process that sacrificed efficiency and quality of peace talks. Yet it also created administrative challenges for the team tasked with the process. In Myanmar, donor agencies largely funded and co-created peace architecture. This condition raised concerns about the impartiality of the peace process, impeding the participation of local constituencies in the negotiation processes. Due to top-down architecture, the fragile trust in state-led peace negotiations dissipated, especially among populations from the ethnic states that have long been fighting with the army and government for the federal territorial division of the state.
The current state of peace in Syria and Myanmar imparts an important truth about peace. If key stakeholders are excluded from processes, then the likelihood that a pre-negotiated settlement fails during the first years of the implementation process is almost guaranteed. Colombia, Sudan, and Mali also attest to this fact. A lack of public buy-in, particularly of majority populations not directly affected by the conflict, derailed peace agreements.
Afghanistan faces a crossroads in its transformation towards post-conflict stabilisation and socio-economic development. And peace talks are gaining momentum. Last year, two peace treaties—one between the US and the Taliban, and the second between the Afghan government and the militant group (Hezb-i Islami Gulbuddin)—were established as roadmaps for negotiating the agreed topics in 2021. It is a historic time in the long history of violence in Afghanistan, backed up by broad support all over the country. Despite the very low trust of people in the government, people’s confidence in the peace process is rising due to the fatigue surrounding the endless war and atrocities committed against the Afghan people. In a survey conducted by Common Ground, approximately 48% of Afghans stated that they have gained more confidence in the peace process and government. Critically, major ethnic groups belong to this wave of support. Afghanistan’s predominant ethnic group, the Pashtuns, comprising almost 74% of the population, were aware of and favor the peace process. This positive shift of people’s attitudes towards government and peacebuilding provides the government and civil society an opportunity to regain the trust and credibility that has been doubted for the last decades. Of course, the investment of foreign funding in the peace processes serving the people is an important precondition.
Civil society gains importance from its ability to bridge the top-down and bottom-up solutions to peacebuilding. It can create a sense of ownership for the Afghan people throughout the country’s transformation. For this reason, donors and international agencies should ensure that local CSOs operate with flexible financial resources, enabling them to engineer uniquely Afghan solutions that can be implemented in multi-year cycles. Involving the private sector can bring about innovative finance mechanisms for peacebuilding, as well as local organizations and cross-sectional partnerships at the regional and national level. For high-risk environments such as Afghanistan, this condition is critical. It requires a programmatic approach that allows adaptation and learning from failure throughout the process. In other words, implementing change is a two-way street.
Edited by Dorothy English; Photo credit: Marko Beljan, Unsplash