Challenges Facing Civil Society in Afghanistan

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By Zafar Shayan

Afghanistan’s modern history is tied with dictatorship, mono-ethnic regimes, and religious tyranny. Individuals and groups, particularly people from different ethnic or religious backgrounds, who criticized regimes or powerful politicians were violently eliminated. On the other hand, the strengthening of the mujahedeen and radical Islamist groups in the last few decades have led to civil war and escalation of religious tyranny more so than ever before. Ethnic exclusiveness and religious radicalism reached its peak under the Taliban regime. Thus, no opportunity remained for intellectual production and the formation of a society based on democratic values.

After the collapse of the Taliban regime, the support of the international community provided an opportunity for civil society discourse. Since then, civil society and human rights groups formed as new phenomenon in Afghanistan. Until now, civil society organizations (CSOs) and activists have made considerable achievements in public awareness and partly monitoring public service. This essay attempts to discuss the problems facing civil society in Afghanistan. Here I have divided the main problems of civil society in three categories: challenges originating from illiteracy and traditional beliefs of the society; violations practiced by the government; and problems that exist in/by CSOs and groups.

Challenges Within Society

Illiteracy is one of the most outstanding destructive legacies of the crisis prompted by decades of war. Afghanistani youth are especially affected as they spent their formative years in an environment of war, filled with violence and deprivation. The people of Afghanistan have not only been deprived of their civil rights; they have secured very little understanding of their civil rights, and on civil society discourse itself. Even amongst the literate people, despite their interest in daily political discussions and using concepts such as citizenship, civil rights, civil society etc., they don’t really have a true understanding of the concepts. Therefore, civil society discourse has remained unknown.

Religious individuals and institutions consider civil society harmful to their beliefs and religious affiliations, due to their acceptance of learning ‘absolute truths’ they seek to impose on others. They don’t hesitate to discredit activists and women’s rights groups amongst the religious masses of Afghanistan. They justify discrimination against women through religious arguments, which has been accepted in a society that has one of the highest illiteracy rates in the world.  Unfortunately, these issues exist within academic institutions as well. During my undergraduate degree at Kabul University, several times I witnessed professors of Islamic subjects labeling activists as promoters of moral corruption; activists are introduced as idlers wasting their time. To exemplify how effective this representation is, a female university student (S.S.) posted on Facebook stating, “unemployed people are civil activists” and in her next post “as the ratio of unemployment is higher among the ethnic Hazara, most of activists are Hazaras”.

Another issue is that level of interest in volunteering is very low. This could be considered a result of poverty (along with traditional and religious ideology). Many educated youth are struggling with life difficulties and some have inevitably migrated. And some of educated youth who have a stake in the government, are conservatives with little interest in volunteering and participating in civic actions. All of these factors have contributed to CSOs not having public support.

Violations Applied by the Government

The freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assemblies are respectively declared in Articles 34, 35, and 36 of Afghanistan’s constitution. The government has also promised the international community to respect civil society and civil rights. But these promises have so far remained only on paper and are less observed in practice, or aren’t even applied. As Sitiz argues: “The government of Afghanistan doesn’t formally recognize civil society as an effective component in its programs.” Instead, it considers CSOs as “political opponents”. According to him, the problem is rooted in the strong presence of ‘yesterday’s absolutists’ in the face of ‘today’s democrats’ in the structure of the government. Here the restrictions applied by the government towards civil society is explained in the context of categorization by CIVICUS as violations of the freedoms of association, expression, and peaceful assembly.

First, there are many restrictions applied by the government on the formation and registration of CSOs. The process of registering a non-governmental organization (NGO) is a lengthy procedure and needs cumbersome documents. Issues referring to various departments, register fees, repeatedly requested information, that these offices are only equipped with a number of desks and chairs and – worst of all –  obstructions, makes registering NGOs difficult, even sometimes impossible. In 2011, my friends and I registered an NGO in the Ministry of Economy after two months of running and referring to different departments of the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Interior Affairs, Kabul Police HQ, Afghanistan Investment Support Agency and several branches of Customs. Several times we decided to give up registering. These restrictions are being implemented to take the CSOs under control, which is a violation of the freedom of association.

Second, the government resorts to violence against activists and neglects security issues, which is a violation of the freedom of peacefully gathering. For instance, the Human Rights Watch and reporters in Bamyan on 29 August, 2016, during Ghani’s visit, reported the repression and detention of activists from the ‘Enlightening Movement’. Further, the government pays little attention to providing security at peaceful gatherings. On 23 July, 2016, a terror attack occurred at a peaceful demonstration in Kabul in which 107 civilians, mostly university students, were killed, and about 500 were wounded, but none of the perpetrators have yet been brought to justice. High officials of the National Security Council (NSC) and National Directorate of Security (NSD) were accused of being involved in the attack, as one of the suicide attackers was released from NSD’s prison a few days before. An organizer from the ‘Enlightening Movement’ claimed that “we have reliable evidence to prove that the attack on the 23 July peaceful demonstration was organized by the government, particularly high officials in NSC and NSD”. Additionally, activists of this movement in Kabul have been threatened with jail several times and more recently, the government refused to provide security for a gathering that was to be organized by the movement.

Third, the government violates the freedom of expression through strict censorship of media. According to the Human Rights Watch, Afghanistan’s media can’t cover “sensitive issues – including corruption, land grabbing, violence against women, and human rights abuses.” Journalists must, therefore, resort to self-censorship to minimize the risk to their lives. For instance, the government puts pressure on media not to cover the activities related to the ‘Enlightening Movement’. The movement’s only media is online social media (like Facebook and Twitter). However, most Afghanistan people don’t have access to the Internet, and thus information dissemination becomes an impossibility amongst most people. This demonstrates that not only does the government discourage freedom of expression, it also is a barrier – along with local militia and terrorist groups.

Problems in CSOs

CSOs suffer incredibly from lack of transparency and lack of skills and capacity amongst their members, and a corrupt CSO cannot criticize a corrupt government. The transparency issues of these organizations depend on the general economic and political conditions of the environment; Afghanistan is always on the list of most corrupt countries in the world. The level of corruption among public and private sectors depend on their level of authority, and some of individuals and entities working in civil society aren’t exception to this.

On the other hand, CSOs suffer from financial dependency, which is due to the poor economic situation of the country. The activities of these organizations mostly have depended on international donors. Recently, that the number of international donor agencies has decreased, resulting in an increase of problems for CSOs financing. In response, some civil society groups and organizations are trying to establish connections with politicians and government officials to attract support. In this way, with receiving small advantages, they lose their independency and turn into a propaganda tool for politicians.

Additionally, there are no cooperative and collaborative networks amongst CSOs. They have negative competition between them instead of coordination, which partly, originates form their political and ethnic affiliations. As Diamond says, civil society groups should respect the law, the rights of individuals and other groups to express their views: “Part of what the word ‘civil’ implies is tolerance and the accommodation of pluralism and diversity.” Unfortunately, this capacity has still not been created in Afghanistan. So, apart from each other, CSOs and affiliated groups remain weak, and can’t attract public support. Because of these problems, the entities working honestly have also lost credibility among the people.

Conclusion and Recommendation

Civil society discourse can’t be created simply in a war-torn country. Authoritarian regimes and radical ideologies have kept the country in very serious cultural, economic, and intellectual poverty. On the other hand, there are various limitations on freedoms of association, expression, and peaceful gatherings applied by the state. The government has failed to take advantage of the international community’s financial, military, and political support for improving the various layers of Afghanistan’s situation – including civil society. Thus, civil society must function under strict governmental limitations, without public support in Afghanistan. Considering these factors and the current environment in the country, there does not seem to be any solution that could alleviate these problems immediately.  But there are ways for relatively improving the current situation.

For improvement, CSOs and activists should first work to attract public support and trust. It is necessary to begin the work amongst themselves and improve the capacity of their members in management, communication, teamwork skills, and understanding of civil society tasks and roles. They should then try to organize capacity improvement programs for youth, especially schoolchildren and university students, in order to raise amongst them awareness of their civil rights and responsibilities as citizens. In this way, all can hold together public awareness raising campaigns to make civil society roles and civil rights familiar to ordinary. This could be an effective approach for promoting civil society discourse and gaining public support.

Second, to practice the above-mentioned approach, there is a need to network amongst CSOs and other individual or group activists; as long as CSOs and human rights groups work separately, we will continue to witness a passive civil society. CSOs and activists can be effective when they are connected. They can learn working strategies and necessary skills from each other. On the other hand, they can collectively identify challenges they face, and publicly express their problems and take action using democratic means.

Third, as long as people do not trust civil society actors, they will not support them. CSOs and informal groups need to start building trust among themselves. Once they show others that they trust each other, they can gain public trust as well. CSOs should not be managed individually; each member should know the management and the plans to represent an organization. On the other hand, financial transparency is an important element in winning people’s trust, and thus they need to make their financial reports public at conferences or publish the information on their websites. Here the ‘Enlightening Movement’ can be considered as a good example for reporting financial assistance provided by the Hazara diaspora community for the treatment of those wounded in the 23 July attack. Its financial committee regularly publishes financial reports on Facebook pages. Another clear example is the voluntary work by Dr. Bashardost, who publishes all financial reports on his Facebook page.

Finally, another effective approach for strengthening civil society is through CSOs working with the international community for securing political support along with financial aids. The international community should put pressure on the government to stop oppression, censorship, and restriction of civil society not only on paper, but in practice. The government should believe in the capacity of CSOs and involve them in its reconstruction programs. On the other hand, international donors should take financial transparency very serious: Organizations and groups should have partners in implementing projects as much as possible – and being accountable to the public is crucial in this respect.

This article was first published in Political Critique

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