The South Asia Channel

Can civil society save Afghanistan?

In a speech earlier this year to commemorate the reign of King Amanullah, Afghanistan’s reformist king during the 1920’s, Afghan President Hamid Karzai focused on the younger generation’s contribution to the country’s future: ‘’This is a steady wheel that is progressively moving toward more development, and it will not turn back," he said. "This is ...


In a speech earlier this year to commemorate the reign of King Amanullah, Afghanistan’s reformist king during the 1920’s, Afghan President Hamid Karzai focused on the younger generation’s contribution to the country’s future: ‘’This is a steady wheel that is progressively moving toward more development, and it will not turn back," he said. "This is a young man’s engine with a power that does not know cold or any other obstacles."

While the country’s social development has seemed to move backwards since the 1920’s, the Afghan youth of today make up the country’s most encouraging hope for progression, though they do face obstacles. The formation of a variety of civil society organizations over the past 10 years, initiated and operated primarily by a younger generation of Afghansseemingly frustrated into motivation, has a central role to play in the course of the country’s future.

This generation was born and has come of age during a time that forced many Afghan families to flee to neighboring or Western countries, where theytook advantage of opportunities for education and intellectual development. Those who remained in Afghanistan saw enough to know they wanted a different future. According to Afghanistan’s Central Statistics Organization, 76 percent of the population is under the age of 35. Enrollment in higher education is at an all-time high – a 25 percent increase in university intake in 2012 compared to the previous year from 84,184 to 112,367. Though the quality of education is relatively low, the number of Afghans striving for an education attests to the country’s desire to be educated.

Educated youths, mainly residing in urban areas, make up a cadre of young intellectuals and professionals that populate a large part of the public and private sector, from Afghan media, governmental bureaucracy, and diplomatic circles to, most importantly, civil society. They are in positions to have their voices heard in ways that influence their peers and set new standards of expectations from their leaders. This is bolstered by the scope and reach of social networking media as a tool for voicing opinion, which has forced even the Taliban to adopt tools such as Twitter in order to engage wider audiences. Another key characteristic of this generation is that they come from all different types of backgrounds-they are children of the diaspora, the mujahideen, and the communists, yet they share a common goal.

While the influence of this generation is invariably limited by the obstacles of the surroundings in which they operate, one area that has particularly flourished with the involvement of youth is civil society, asector of Afghan society that is dominated by the ideals and optimism of the entrepreneurial and socially progressive mood of many young, educated Afghans. The 4,280 civil society and non-governmental organizations registered in Afghanistan take many shapes and forms–from social responsibility and charity groups addressing issues such as women’s and children’s rights, the rights of the disabled, civic engagement, education, and environmental campaigns, to professional groups that bring together entrepreneurs and practitioners in various sectors including health, telecommunications, and economic development.

Two such exemplary organizations are Young Women for Change (YWC), a social organization advocating women’s rights, and the National ICT Alliance of Afghanistan (NICTAA), a consortium of information and communication technology (ICT) entities working to forward the industry in Afghanistan. Established in 2011, YWC, the group of young Afghan women, and even some men, raises awareness of women’s rights.  The group has been highly vocal and visible in advocating for change, most notably in the summer of 2011 when male and female YWC members staged a public march to protest sexual harassment of women in the streets. More recently, the group opened Afghanistan’s first women-only internet café.

NICTAA, as a consortium of information and communication technology (ICT) professionals established in 2008, brings together ICT actors in the public and private sector and academia to work toward the advancement and development of this sector in Afghanistan, an area that brings significant investment in the country, an estimated 1.7 billion USD as of June 2012.The organisation has represented Afghanistan’s ICT sector at conferences worldwide, and is unique in that it works closely with the government to create opportunities in the sector in Afghanistan.

At a recent parliamentary inquiry in the United Kingdom, the Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, responded to multiple questions about how progress on women and human rights would be ensured post-2014 by referencing the British government’s new program for strengthening civil society organisations.  His argument was that by strengthening Afghan civil society, such organisations could in turn hold their government to account, and challenge its response to women and human rights. 

While civil society organizations (CSOs) do hold a critical mirror to reflect the country’s key issues, both positive and negative, and provide platforms for the public to respond, engage, and challenge social, professional, or economic policies and issues, they do face serious obstacles, mainly due to the lack of an enabling environment. Due to poor security, most groups are based from urban centers, with operations and progress mainly confined to Afghanistan’s cities and out of reach of the nearly 80% of Afghans residing in rural areas.

Moreover, of the thousands of CSOs registered with the government, it’s unclear how many are inactive or were set up as a means for channelling funds. Civil society has not escaped the touch of corruption plaguing Afghanistan, either. The government has not shied away from taking action against organisations that have been vocal in challenging them, most recently the controversial dismissal of the head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, allegedly over the pending publication of a report accusing high-ranking cabinet members of past human rights violations.

Despite these challenges, CSOs do present an opportunity to put forth and encouragechangein Afghan society and policy. In a country where well-established, national political parties with clear strategic visions have not fully developed, the country risks floating from one power-holder to the next without the reform that often comes from healthy party rivalries and change of administrations.

The collective influences and achievements of civil society organisations at all levels of Afghan society need to be consolidated at a national level, especially in the face of uncertainty beyond 2014, as a way to fill that void. Uniting civil society organisations in a sort of national-level consortium would be a massive undertaking, not only due to the sheer number of groups, but also due to the range of differing topics and issues covered; however, a common overarching goal arguably underlies civil society groups in Afghanistan that only their united support could help advance: a peaceful and progressive future for the country geared toward economic, social, and educational advancement and stability.

Lael A. Mohib works in community and rural development in Afghanistan, and has an M.A. in International Relations with a focus on Afghanistan from Boston University. Hamdullah Mohib was Director of Information Technology at the American University of Afghanistan, and is now studying for his PhD at Brunel University.