NGO relations with the government and communities in Afghanistan
by Emilie Jelinek May 2009

This article explores the relationship between NGOs and the Afghan government, and communities’ perceptions of both. The research on which it is based was principally undertaken in three provinces, Herat, Balkh and Kabul. The article also draws on the author’s experience in other parts of the country, specifically the south-east. The core of the study highlights the issues shaping relations between the Afghan government and NGOs, with a view to improving them, and identifying areas where they can better appreciate each other’s respective merits. A clarification of roles and greater communication between NGOs and the government would help to foster a more effective relationship in an environment where, at present, neither can work properly without the other.

The working environment in Afghanistan

Afghanistan is one of the most difficult countries for NGOs to work in. The security situation is getting progressively worse, with aid workers subjected to a growing number of direct attacks, threats and intimidation. In 2008, 40 humanitarian aid convoys and 47 aid facilities were attacked, ambushed or looted, and 112 aid workers were kidnapped (five of whom were killed). In some areas, infrastructure and services are almost non-existent. The military presence is high, and in some areas NGOs are compelled to share operational space with the military, affecting how NGOs are perceived locally and raising difficult issues of independence, neutrality and impartiality. Social and political systems are not uniform across the country, requiring organisations to adopt very specific local approaches to the areas in which they are working. The complex and multi-faceted nature of the conflict in Afghanistan has brought together a host of different actors, ostensibly working together to meet a variety of objectives and often required to produce immediate results despite the fact that objectives, actors and initiatives are not always complementary. Political imperatives often lead to programmes that are not responsive to local needs.

Relations with the government

Although influencing the political and security environment is beyond the scope of agencies working in the field, certain aspects of NGO work, specifically relations with the government, could be improved. While coordination between the government and aid agencies has arguably improved over the past few years, particularly in Kabul, more could be done.

Currently, coordination between NGOs and the government takes place at various levels, both in Kabul and in the provinces. NGOs are required to submit regular reports to line ministries (as well as the ministries of economy and finance). Provincial Development Committees were set up in each province in 2005 in order to improve coordination between the centre and the provinces; there are also specific sectoral meetings (involving line ministries and UN and NGO representatives), held monthly. To some extent, the effectiveness of these meetings depends on the personalities involved; some participants are more active than others, and attendances vary.

The government currently has the ability to facilitate or obstruct NGO operations. A number of NGOs working in Afghanistan today operated prior to and during the Taliban era. Although their work was highly regulated, they nonetheless had the space they needed to operate. Now, however, NGOs must work alongside a government intent on regulating, planning and managing their projects and activities. This is in part due to the fact that the current administration in Kabul claims service provision as one of its main objectives. According to a law designed to ensure NGO accountability and transparency, and ostensibly to enhance coordination, NGOs must consult with the government and sign a Memorandum of Understanding before they can implement projects. NGOs must also report to the government on all their activities, unlike other actors such as private contractors or Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). Whilst enabling the government to keep track of what NGOs are doing, this system makes it difficult for them to implement projects in a timely manner.

Despite tensions, the government and NGOs have at times worked together to produce some remarkable and widely recognised achievements, such as the National Solidarity Programme (NSP), the Basic Package of Health Services (BPHS) programme and even some evolving community-based education programmes. Yet the fact that so many different actors are involved in development and humanitarian activities, including the UN and the military, means that relations are inevitably complex. Concepts of impartiality and independence sit uneasily amidst this growing need for increased coordination, if not collaboration. By the same token, government views on NGOs are often negative and contradictory. Provincial government respondents accused NGOs of wasting funds and using donor money to pay for extravagant, luxurious lifestyles. At the same time, however, they admitted that they relied heavily on NGOs to carry out work and deliver services which they did not have the resources or the capacity to deliver themselves.

The most effective working relations have been established where NGOs have worked to involve the government in their research efforts, providing them with information about their programmes and plans and inviting them to various events, training sessions and project inaugurations. In Herat, for example, one international NGO is careful not to hire qualified agronomists away from the government, so as not to undermine government capacity. The organisation also recognises that capacity is low and resources are scarce, and so helps out by providing the government with transport to field sites. It also seconds staff to government offices. Relations also tend to be better with agencies that have had a long-standing presence in their area. As one NGO staff member in Herat stated:

Both NGOs and the government have responsibilities. The government should focus more on a coordinating role to bring NGOs together. NGOs should build government capacity. Their roles should be complementary … The government is the biggest development agency in the country and NGOs should realise this. Their role should be to create models for development, which the government can follow. The NGO field level worker cannot simply take decisions, but should advise and inform. However, the role NGOs have is crucial. They can identify why and how a system is failing. But many NGOs don’t involve the government in their work.

There is considerable frustration within the provincial government over its inability to reach communities due to a lack of resources. In a country where the road and communications infrastructure is severely under-developed, outreach to communities takes on greater meaning. Not having the resources to access districts and communities severely undermines reconstruction efforts, and in many cases exacerbates tensions with NGOs, which generally can afford to make visits to local communities and establish relations with local people. Several provincial government respondents mentioned that they felt disempowered and resentful as a result. This again poses a particular challenge to NGO–government relations, as NGOs will undoubtedly want to maintain their distance and independence from the government in their work. However, they may want to consider approaching local government representatives when conducting field or site visits, so that the government can increase its presence and legitimacy with local communities. Interviews conducted in Balkh and in areas of south-eastern Afghanistan revealed great community dissatisfaction with the minimal government presence in their area, which of course is compounded by the worsening security situation.

Community perceptions of the government and NGOs

Views of the government differed among the local population in Herat and in Balkh. In the former, there appeared to be growing resentment towards the government for its lack of engagement in communities, some of its policies (notably the banning of poppy cultivation, which adversely affected people’s livelihoods) and its inability to provide services. Whilst a desire to see a government rather than NGO presence was voiced numerous times, respondents in several communities in Balkh indicated that the provision of security, which seemed to be the main expectation from the government, made up for the lack of basic services. All community members interviewed in Herat, for example, brought up the weakness of the government. One villager stated: ‘Our government is very weak and we need the support of foreigners. We need them and they should be here to support us. However, NGOs should consider what really needs to be done and they should be more attentive to what communities are asking for’.

The most frequent complaint against the government by communities concerns rampant corruption, which has become endemic and is severely undermining state- building efforts. Meetings held over the course of the last six months with community members in Paktia and Khost provinces in the south-east reveal mounting indignation and anger against a government which, two years or so ago, people were still willing to support.

As for NGOs, a recurrent complaint was that they implemented projects regardless of what villagers had asked of them. ‘An organisation came to our village to ask us for our views on what type of assistance we needed, but then they did what they wanted.’ In another village, however, a village council representative stated that ‘NGOs come here and they are very straightforward; they tell us what they can provide us with, and are honest with us. They are hard-working and regularly supervise the projects they are implementing’. There still appears to be a general misunderstanding among both the government and people regarding who and what NGOs are. According to a research consultant who undertook an extensive study of large private contractors working in Afghanistan, many of the people spoken to often referred to these contractors as NGOs. The military often employ contractors, which communities confuse for NGOs, to carry out projects which are not properly supervised and lack accountability.

According to a senior advisor working in Kabul, perceptions of NGOs are linked to the outcomes of the projects they implement: ‘where decent, professionally staffed and well trained NGOs have been operating, results have been good. This contrasts with the South, where NSP projects have been implemented through private contractors. Outcomes have been negligible. Vast amounts of funding are being tied up in these contractors’ overheads. Good qualified and well respected NGOs are doing a tremendous job and where outcomes are good, NGOs are viewed favourably by the local population’.

Such outcomes are undoubtedly linked to the amount of time spent engaging directly with communities. As one member of a national NGO working in the south-east stressed, NGOs must engage with all local actors, not just with the government, and invest time in getting to know tribal elders and influential community members in areas where they are working. According to this representative, it was vitally important for NGOs to establish their presence and legitimacy and engage in projects such as building mosques (a common request). Donors must understand the local context and give NGOs the freedom to engage in such activities.

Where next?

Greater clarity regarding the purpose, authority and membership of the various agencies working in humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan is required. NGOs must make clear who they are and what they do, as their ability to deliver aid to those in need may be severely compromised in the long term if these lines become blurred. Furthermore, the contradictory nature of the government’s often negative perceptions of NGOs suggests that the government is perhaps unsure as to the type of partnership it wants, and should define what must ultimately be a strategic partnership, realising and making use of the expertise and wealth of knowledge and information NGOs can bring.

In summary, the study found that government perceptions of NGOs were good where:

  • NGOs had involved the government by providing it with information about their programmes, activities and future plans.
  • NGOs had invited the government to events, training sessions, workshops and project inaugurations, and helped ease government logistical constraints.
  • NGOs had a long-standing presence in an area and had spent time and effort in getting to know the local population and community leaders.
  • NGOs had made efforts to coordinate their activities with the government and keep the government up to date with their work.

The most important determinant of how NGOs were perceived was government capacity. In ministries where capacity was low, standard perceptions of NGOs were overwhelmingly negative. Where it was apparent that government staff were more experienced and qualified, perceptions of NGOs were much more balanced, and there was generally a recognition of their value and expertise and the wealth of information they can offer.

Relations between the government and NGOs are likely to be more constructive in cases where the government is confident and capable. The government of Afghanistan is however neither of those things. Working in Afghanistan will undoubtedly remain frustrating, and government capacity will take time to build. In certain cases, NGOs may not even want to be associated with what they perceive to be corrupt and unaccountable bodies. However, by identifying exactly what each other’s respective roles are and should be, there is the potential to achieve an effective and complementary relationship.

Emilie Jelinek has worked for national NGOs and the United Nations in Afghanistan since 2004, and is currently based in Paktia province in the south-east. Her email address is emiliejelinek@yahoo.fr. Funding for this study was provided by the European Commission through the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR).

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