By Rebecca Giovannozzi and Mehreen Farooq

With mounting insecurity and uncertainty about the durability of the Afghan peace deal, how will the Biden Administration continue to strengthen democracy in Afghanistan?  Supporting the development of inclusive civil society networks may be the key to a peaceful future for Afghan women and men.

For over 14 years, Counterpart International has supported Afghan civil society to become a pivotal actor in advancing the rights of the Afghan people. However, the sector – particularly women’s organizations – face a number of challenges in realizing its full potential, stemming from a restrictive enabling environment, donor dependency, and limited sustainability. Fostering inclusive civil society networks may provide one avenue to strengthening the sector’s potential, particularly when it comes to sharing resources, exchanging lessons learned, and fostering synergies to advance shared goals.

To begin, we know that networks work in Afghanistan. Our early work under the USAID-funded Initiative to Promote Afghan Civil Society programs (IPACS I and II; 2005-2014) sought to strengthen the legal framework for civil society organizations (CSOs), strengthen the civil society sector, and increase citizen mobilization. In doing so, Counterpart supported the development of a network of over 400 organizations in Afghanistan. Through a cascading model of technical support and small grants, these organizations mobilized communities and pursued advocacy initiatives that strengthened human rights and democratic norms.

Later, in 2014 under the Afghan Civic Engagement Project (ACEP), Counterpart partnered with the Agha Khan Foundation to establish the Afghan Institute for Civil Society (AICS). This institute continues to support civil society development and is supported by several CSO networks. In addition to conducting research relating to the civil society sector, AICS strengthens the capacity of local organizations, and certifies them to become responsible implementers of internationally-funded programs.

Today, there are other local organizations establishing their own networks. The Afghan Women’s Network (AWN), for example, connects women-led organizations to advocate for gender-responsive policies. Like many larger Afghan CSOs, they are headquartered in Kabul, but mobilize partner organizations throughout the provinces, and are a vital mechanism for amplifying women’s voices on key issues – from improving education and health services, to peacebuilding. However, with the potential resurgence of the Taliban, there are growing concerns among Afghans that the hard-fought gains of promoting human rights and demonstrating women’s agency could be sidelined. Therefore, the immediate challenge for women-led organizations like AWN will be establishing cross-sectoral partnerships with other networks that can champion gender-inclusive policies and services.

Photo Credit: Ian Carver

In short, strengthening existing CSO networks to be not only sustainable, but inclusive, is paramount and it can be achieved through three key approaches.

First, the international community should use community-identified issues as a common theme around which to build and sustain a network. A successful example of this is the Men Supporting Women’s Rights (MSWR) group formed by Counterpart under ACEP. Consisting of CSO representatives from organizations from around the country, they met to discuss the rights of women, collaborated to promote women’s ability to engage in decision-making processes, and pushed for policy changes such as addressing gender-based violence in the Cyber Crime Law. The MSWR group continues to meet even after the conclusion of ACEP. Without a donor-funded mandate, the working group now focuses on those issues that matter most to Afghans – from improving maternal health to securing women’s rights to inheritance. The international development community could support local actors to apply Thinking and Working Politically principles to further identify issues like improving access to water, sanitation and health that are not politically divisive and which can garner broad public support and secure the social and political will necessary for additional gender-responsive policies and practices.

Second, support networks to form strategic partnerships for sustainable success. Existing CSO networks would benefit from forming partnerships with private sector or other entities such as universities to continue network activities without international funding. For example, ACEP had supported mock debate trials that allowed students a platform to debate and inform policy. This was done in collaboration with local universities and student groups, ensuring that each year a new group of students took on leadership roles once the previous participants had graduated. Working with similar partners could ensure that CSOs are able to equip the next generation of Afghan leaders.  

Third, bridge the gap between rural, provincial and national actors. Many local organizations are unable to access donor funding due to a lack of experience, or are unable to connect with other local and provincial, let alone national, CSOs due to an inability to travel, access the internet, or tap into political patronage networks. Women are particularly marginalized due to increased restrictions on their movement where there is limited security, the gendered digital divide, and continued under-engagement in civic activities. As a result, donor funding continues to go towards established, registered organizations based in urban centers that have a proven track record and access to resources. To address this challenge, donors should prioritize initiatives that tap into local concerns and leverage grassroots organizations and local actors. This would enable development practitioners to work with the grain, for example, by working through traditional institutions like religious shrines where women have established safes spaces to congregate. Over the past two decades, even in the most conservative areas, Counterpart’s partners conducted gender-sensitive activities in mosques or shines by working in partnership with religious actors.

Children play football in what was once the vast and lavishly landscaped gardens of Darlaman palace
Photo Credit: Ian Carver

In summary, with the right approaches, civil society in Afghanistan can continue to serve an important role in elevating citizen priorities – particularly for those populations who have been historically marginalized or under-represented. However, long-term success will require strategic and continued investments in strengthening the sector from the international community to ensure that nascent gains from the past two decades are not lost.

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