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Refugees Magazine Issue 97 (NGOs and UNHCR) - Afghan initiatives

Refugees Magazine Issue 97 (NGOs and UNHCR) - Afghan initiatives
Refugees (97, III - 1994)

1 September 1994
Until the late 1980s, there were virtually no local NGOs in Afghanistan. By 1994, there were hundreds.

Afghanistan is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. During the 1980s, a third of the population - over six million people - became refugees. Until the late 1980s, there were virtually no local Afghan NGOs. By 1994 there were hundreds. Nancy Dupree describes the phenomenal growth of the Afghan NGO.

By Nancy Hatch Dupree
Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR)

"I felt I must leave my village," said the young Afghan doctor. "It was too shameful to bear." We were sitting in his neat clinic in the centre of Zena Khan's one-street bazaar nestled among khaki-coloured mountains in Ghazni province in eastern Afghanistan. We had arrived here over a track which an Afghan NGO had just finished upgrading so that vehicles could reach outlying villages. During the war this road had been a foot trail used by Afghan resistance fighters carrying weapons for their battles against Soviet and government forces manning the main Kabul-Ghazni highway an hour to the west.

The doctor was describing how he felt when his clinic fell victim to reductions brought on by a general curtailment of NGO funds from international sources. He had been trained by one NGO, and set up with a clinic by another, only to be summarily informed that no further support was forthcoming. "I simply could not make the people understand," he said. "How could a mother with a sick child understand that far-away people had suddenly decided I should no longer have the means to help her?"

Happily, a locally based Afghan NGO came to the clinic's rescue, drawing on a special fund obtained from hiring out threshing machines. Although the money was limited, it was enough to provide start-up rent for two narrow bazaar shops, one to be used as a store and the other as a clinic divided into three spaces: a front waiting-room with a floor of washed gravel, and a central consultation room curtained off from the examining room at the back.

The doctor charges fees in cash or kind since the Afghan NGO cannot afford to pay him a salary. As a result, this isolated area now has access to basic health facilities for the first time.

This story illustrates a number of advantages of local NGOs: sensitive on-the-spot staff motivated to respond to emergency needs, independent decision-making, one-time assistance for sustainable enterprises, flexibility in the use of limited funds, and the willingness to think creatively in solving problems together with the community.

Such NGOs, however, are new phenomena in Afghanistan, even though Afghans have traditionally respected Islamic injunctions emphasizing both individual and community obligations toward the welfare of communities.

Before the war that began in 1978, Afghan governments asserted their right to impose zakat - a portion of wealth bestowed in alms (a duty incumbent upon every Muslim) - as a tax for social welfare. However, their insistence on controlling all institutionalized welfare precluded the establishment of organizations conforming with western definitions of what constitutes an NGO.

The war gave birth to new types of welfare bodies, but most were inexorably tied to the promotion of political parties. Not until 1988 did international agencies begin to encourage Afghans to form their own NGOs to help implement services within liberated rural areas known as "zones of tranquility." It was hoped that by making life more habitable inside Afghanistan these projects would stem the flood of thousands of refugees streaming daily into Pakistan and Iran.

These projects functioned largely outside any government network since the Pakistan-based Afghan Interim Government, artificially created in February 1989, was never effective. The fledgling Afghan NGOs were seen by some as artificial creations of foreign funding, for initially most of them had no roots in the communities they sought to serve. Still, hundreds of Afghans employed with international NGOs gained experience and benefited from the training they received.

Nevertheless, there were problems. Without indigenous models from the past to guide them, many local Afghan NGO personnel adhered to attitudes and working methods better suited to government bureaucracies, academia, businesses or political parties. Frequently deficient in administrative skills, weak in professional competency, and negligent in adequate reporting, these local NGOs failed to win the trust of donors.

This led to unreliable and increasingly meagre funding. The U.N. system, including UNHCR and the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Assistance Relating to Afghanistan (UNOCHA), has provided 80% of the $4-5 million channelled to Afghan NGOs over the past few years, with foreign governments and international NGOs contributing the remainder.

It is hard to say just how many local Afghan NGOs exist today. Estimates range between 200 and 700! Of these 60 or 70 are genuinely effective. Others lead amorphous existences. As the euphoria over the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989 and the establishment of the Islamic State of Afghanistan in April 1992 dissipated in the face of continued factional fighting, international funding declined. Drastic cuts followed.

Paradoxically, the number of Afghan NGOs has steadily increased. Many spin-offs from defunct foreign NGOs joined those Afghan NGOs with conscience which seek accountability within the communities where they work. By contrast, scores of new groups, calling themselves NGOs, came into being as contracted implementers of projects designed by others. Afghans derisively label these as "briefcase NGOs."

Briefcase NGOs have few meaningful links with communities and are seldom genuinely interested in humanitarian goals or long-term prospects. But their leaders, having commandeered large stocks of heavy machinery when the former regime collapsed, are well equipped to implement projects, although they often lack professional expertise. Thus, like common contractors, they must seek skilled labour.

The briefcase NGOs often turn to genuine Afghan NGOs for expertise. The latter are mostly small, lack adequate machinery and need more income. By hiring themselves out to briefcase NGOs in their desperate search for funds, however, they attract the accusation that they are acting as contractors themselves. This damages their credibility.

On the plus side, however, there are hundreds of superbly qualified professionals now working with local Afghan NGOs. These people, having eschewed the temptations of resettlement, are dedicating their lives to their nation's reconstruction. They plan and manage complex programmes with proficient competence.

Growing numbers of Afghan NGOs maintain close personal links to communities, patiently taking the time to establish rapport over countless cups of tea. They coordinate regionally, introducing integrated rural development schemes with long-term objectives.

They work in all sectors, including road repair, irrigation, agriculture, health and formal, non-formal and vocational education. However, before many of these projects can get underway, the countryside must first be cleared of mines. The Afghan de-mining programmes, the world's largest, are carried out directly by local Afghan NGOs, together with UNOCHA.

Because they are small, many local Afghan NGOs can afford to be creative. Amputees in Jalalabad in the eastern province of Nangarhar are taught to ride bicycles so they may attend schools and go to work. Other disabled in the Panjshir Valley, some 65 miles north of Kabul, are taught vocational trades such as welding, carpentry and shoe-making. At several centres throughout Afghanistan, young men who neglected formal education while fighting in the resistance are taught to repair bicycles, vehicles and radios. All these Afghan NGO programmes help rebuild the economy while providing services for the 2.7 million refugees who have returned from Pakistan and Iran to their towns and villages where the bazaars are rapidly coming back to life.

Afghan NGOs are also active in eliciting local participation in projects. Social workers trained in Peshawar, Pakistan, have returned to their homes in the north and west where they encourage communities to identify local resources instead of depending entirely on outside assistance. In Kunar province, north of Jalalabad, local khans have donated land for schools built by local masons and staffed by volunteer teachers, many of whom received training with Afghan NGOs working among the refugees in Peshawar. International NGOs supply the books and other educational materials.

In Logar province, south of Kabul, Afghan NGO engineers work with communities to erect flood-control structures to restrain spring floods which wash away farmland and deposit sand on fertile soil. South of Logar, at Shash Qala in Wardak province, an agricultural experimental centre which, among other things, rents tractors and threshers to farmers, also helps fill the information vacuum by producing simple text books on how to establish orchards, grow better wheat and combat plant diseases. These texts are particularly useful to Afghan NGOs like one in Andar, north of the Hindu Kush, which has distributed millions of saplings of improved varieties of apricots, walnuts, almonds, plums, and peaches in order to revive fruit and nut exports which were the mainstay of Afghanistan's export economy before the war.

Further west, at Jaghori in Ghazni province, an Afghan NGO headed by an Afghan woman doctor has built a 200-bed hospital, equipped it with contributions from an international NGO and staffed it with men and women trained at her clinic in Quetta, capital of Pakistan's Baluchistan province. Women health care professionals also staff mobile mother-child clinics from their base near Jalalabad. And in Laghman, north-west of Jalalabad, women living in high mountain valleys are learning how to keep bees and poultry as well as how to better care for goats and sheep. These women pass on one-third of the new-born chicks, kids and lambs to other women to keep the project going.

Various Afghan NGOs have established animal husbandry projects throughout almost every province. In addition to widespread vaccination programmes, attention is also given to introducing improved breeds and setting up micro-dairies. The scope of Afghan NGO activities is imaginative and endless, and Afghan field workers periodically hold regional conferences to share ideas and overall objectives.

Ongoing political instability means the present central government cannot provide purposeful direction for reconstruction strategies. Local Afghan NGOs now carry this responsibility. When peace returns, what will be their role? Future Afghan governments would be wise to capitalize on the ever-growing experience of local NGOs, if they wish to see the evolution of an infrastructure that truly serves all of Afghanistan's diverse and, in many cases, severely traumatized communities.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 97 (1994)