By Mehrnoosh Entezari
The 64th UN DPI-NGO Conference aims at combining sustainability and civil engagement. On the second day of the conference, participants from diverse backgrounds gathered at a round table to discuss strategies to enhance civic engagement in their countries. A participant from Madagascar presented a project that recruits locals to teach people how to read and write. After a year, 75 percent of the participants in the program were literate.
Would a similar program work in my home country, Afghanistan? Would people give their time for a common good? Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, many NGOs have been engaged in improving the human rights situation and strengthening the economy. Others are trying to acquaint the Afghans with democratic structures.
What would happen if the numerous international non-governmental organizations left Afghanistan? Would people get together to defend their own interests? To be honest, I don’t think so.
There are about 1600 foreign and Afghan non-governmental organizations in Afghanistan. More than 300 of them are run by foreigners. The fact is that Afghan NGOs get their subsidies from abroad. Afghanistan still doesn’t have the resources.
Many of the Afghan NGOs are tied to high-ranking officials: They are run by their family members. In fact, many of the Afghan NGOs are basically family firms.
The problem is that in Afghanistan you are at first committed to your family. Your relatives have expectations from you. So the family is your first priority and not the development projects.
Experts report that the results of 70 – 80% of the completed development projects in Afghanistan are of low or bad quality – be they governmental or non-governmental.
The government of Afghanistan is in its infancy, and individuals are left fending for themselves. They can only survive in family networks and patron-client relations. Often people are only able to reach their goals through personal connections.
In Afghanistan, if you get a job in an institution, you are responsible for your family. They will expect money or an appointment from you.
I can still remember when I heard that the brother of the former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder worked as a pool attendant. I could not understand it. I thought: what a brother and chancellor is this? He is obliged to help his brother. He should do something for him! That’s what I thought then.
You are also committed to the person who helps you to get the job. This person is often a patron, a ground landlord or a warlord. You are obliged to him, because he protects you and your family and he is the person who represents your interests.
People are very loyal to their patrons. Even if he is a warlord.
Some years ago, the warlord Rashid Dostum in the north of Afghanistan had some problems with Hamed Karzai, Afghan president and he lived in Turkey while in exile. Dostum represents the interests of Uzbeks, one of the major ethnic minorities in Afghanistan. The consecution of Dostums banishment the almost insurgence of the Uzbek minority and Karzai asked Dostum back to return.
So Afghan society and civil interests are very fragmentary. You can’t reconcile or balance these interests. Every group, be it an ethnic group or an extended family, works in own interests.
On such background, it would be unheard for people to gather and represent their own interests. They don’t feel the need to do that. In the hierarchical system, the leader, your patron, the oldest do that for you.
People in Afghanistan are used to asking a mediator when they have a problem. Never, almost never they would start an initative by themselves. In the hierarchy, there is always someone higher-ranking to whom you have to tell about your problems. This has been a tradition in Afghanistan for hundred of years.
I don’t believe that the people of Afghanistan are ready to give back without wanting in return – to develop a culture of civic engagement that is voluntary and without vested interests.
I think it will take a long time to change the minds and the hearts of the people. But time and patience is something Western politicians and international donors do not have. They have invested millions into Afghanistan and they now have a vested interest in what is still an archaic system.
I think the only way this can change is if NGOs invest in education. Only through education will Afghans learn about how other civil societies utilize volunteerism and civic engagement – and learn from them. It’s the only way that you can slowly sand down the pillars of this old system. Otherwise you can only pumping money back into a system that is immovable, impenetrable – like concrete.