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Afghanistan's National Solidarity Program
Sarah Rich, 17 Jul 07
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At the end of 2001, the Taliban's seven-year rule in Afghanistan gave way to the formation of the Afghan Interim Authority, and subsequently a set of programs and plans for rebuilding Afghanistan's political, economic and security strategies and empowering citizens to be managers and drivers of the reconstruction of their villages and of the country as a whole. Ashraf Ghani played a major role in these efforts, as Finance Minister for the country (2002-2004), Executive Director of the Afghan Assistance Coordination Authority, and a primary creator of the National Development Framework and Securing Afghanistan’s Future -- a comprehensive document illuminating a path towards financial self-sustainability in Afghanistan through public investment.

From both within and outside of government, Ghani has worked to establish partnerships between communities, national and international NGOs, and government, most pointedly through the establishment of the National Solidarity Program, which promotes village-level, community-run development programs, and networks Afghanistan's many villages -- through community development councils -- with one another and with agencies and organizations that can grant them access to resources.

I learned about the NSP when I met Clare Lockhart, a former UN and government advisor in Afghanistan who worked closely with Ghani to establish the program. Lockhart told me about the history of the NSP, as well as the Institute for State Effectiveness, which she created more recently with Ghani and others to promote and support similar programs internationally. After speaking with Lockhart, I watched Ghani's TED talk from the 2005 conference, and then followed up with some interview questions by email. Below are the answers and some extended clarifications on the various components of the NSP and its outgrowth projects. Lockhart and Ghani will be releasing a jointly authored book later this year entitled The Framework: Fixing Failed States.

SR: Your site states: "NSP promotes a new development paradigm whereby communities are empowered to make decisions and manage resources during all stages of the project cycle. The program will lay the foundation for a sustainable form of inclusive local governance, rural reconstruction, and poverty alleviation."

Can you describe what kind of development paradigm this responds or reacts to? How has it been and how have you approached empowerment sufficient to shift that paradigm?

The citizen-empowerment paradigm is counterposed to one where aid is seen as charity for those who are incapable of helping themselves. In this model, donor agencies and their contractors, whether "private" or "NGO," provide services to individuals who are seen as passive recipients of charity. This model has some problems: the number of contractual layers in the chain mean that there is often very little money left by the time the project reaches the village. Villagers are often not involved at all, or only involved in the project as a token gesture toward their positions as "beneficiaries." Projects are usually designed by headquarters thousands of miles away, distant from the reality on the ground. And projects come in clusters that bear little relationship to the needs or context of a particular village. One village might receive 3 wells, the next a bicycle delivery, the next a hen project, and no villagers can work out why.

The NSP paradigm by contrast believes that putting resources, choices, and responsibility to manage and account directly into the hands of villagers has several benefits. First, this empowers citizens to make their own choices. Villagers interviewed in Afghanistan said that for the first time they felt like citizens rather than subjects, as they were able to make decisions about how to use resources. Before this, they had experienced the state as a negative force.

Second, by putting the resources directly to the village level, it is a much more cost-effective means of redistributing resources, as it does not require the many contractual layers that other donor-financed aid programs often required. The villagers themselves portion out the work and manage most of it themselves, ensuring that they engage in the reconstruction process as active decision-makers and participants rather than passive observers and beneficiaries.

Third, by encouraging villages to elect their village council through secret ballot, having participatory meetings to choose projects, and putting up public accounts of expenditure, it entrenches good governance practices -- of democracy, participation and accountability -- at the very local level, which may percolate up to the top.

Fourth, because the program distributes resources even-handedly, to each and every village according to criteria, across the country, it encourages a sense of social cohesion, fairness and trust in government, and is policy-based, as contrasted with aid projects that are fragmented and to villagers, seemingly random.

Fifth, it creates a bottom-up governance structure. Villages have begun to federate spontaneously, joining plans and money to do joint programs such as roads and irrigation schemes. In October 2007, representatives from villages across the country will convene in Kabul for the "National Convention of Communities" to discuss their shared problems and goals.

SR: Can you talk about the first project you did with the NSP? How was it successful enough to make you feel you could repeat it and grow it? What were early challenges from which you learned?

CL: The NSP was designed from the start as a mechanism that would reach the whole country. Post-2001, it was thought so critical to design a mechanism based on solidarity (i.e., one that would reach all citizens in all villages), on an even-handed basis, as quickly as possible, to support them in their efforts to rebuild their society, that there was not time for piloting the initiative. The team had, however, worked on similar programs and studied the different models available during their time at the World Bank in the 1990s, which served as a pilot phase.

While there were not officially pilots, as the program could not reach all villages simultaneously, the introduction of the program would have to be phased, so a first batch of villages were chosen. These were selected using transparent criteria, including distance from an urban center, number of refugees, and degree of vulnerability of the population according to a UN survey.

The program was designed in collaboration between an international team and a team
Afghans who had worked on similar programs for many years in urban areas in Afghanistan. It was based on a multi-year deep study of community programs and national social welfare programs, looking at different mechanisms from across the world to adapt them to the unique conditions on the ground. It took the belief that the Afghan communities and citizens knew best how to survive, manage in the face of adversity, build local buildings and decide how best to use scarce resources, and that decisions taken closest to the ground would be best. It also took the view that enfranchising citizens in decisions and management would make them stakeholders in the peace, rather than bit part actors in their country's reconstruction.

Initially the program was designed to be a government- ommunity program and did not involve the NGOs. This was changed for two reasons: first, to ensure the support of the NGOs rather than their opposition to the program (some NGOs did not believe the villages would have the capacity to manage their own projects and preferred to be the interlocutors, decision-makers and implementers themselves); and second, because the NGOs could genuinely bring some useful skills to the program. The skills they brought were in facilitation of local government elections by secret ballot and assisting the communities in forming and managing their council. But unlike many other NGO programs, the village maintains the money and all spending choices and other decision rights over the money. The program itself functions as a collaborative framework which allows citizens, communities, NGOs, the private sector, the government and international organizations to collaborate to create public value and private wealth. It is designed so as to unleash the productive and creative energies of each group.

Indeed, when I visited communities across Afghanistan the following quotes could be heard:

"For the first time I feel like a citizen, as my government trusts me to make decisions," "Take these NGOs away: we don’t want what they are giving us, it is a waste of money. Instead, Karzai should put the money in a trust fund and spend it carefully over a long period of time, letting us decide how to manage our projects."

“Before the program came along, we were sitting in a heap," (this in a village that was literally a pile of rubble, the villagers just returned from exile) "Then the facilitator came along and we began to get up off the ground and organize ourselves. It was not so much the money -- although that is helpful -- but the fact we began to collaborate and talk to each other to work out what to do. We found that one woman was literate and would teach the children, one man had a car which he would lend to take goods to market, and one man was a carpenter and offered to build our houses for us."

"It is the National Tablecloth of Afghanistan as it weaves all the villages together."

Initially there was some tension as to whether the program should be merely redistributive, or whether villages should be allowed to use the capital allotted as a revolving fund to generate more capital through private sector activities. In the future, the program may evolve in the latter direction so it becomes a hybrid between a transfer/social welfare and a rural enterprise scheme. In fact, many villages are operating it like this at the moment. For example, one village installed a micro-hydro scheme which is so successful that they are selling excess electricity to the surrounding villages and using the proceeds for other projects.

SR: Can you describe how you run the funding of priority subprojects? Is it a microlending model? What are "direct block grant transfers?"

A block grant of a certain amount is allocated and distributed to a village. Villages first elect their village council (a distinctive type of election as villagers first decide the criteria by which they will elect their council and then they conduct the elections against those criteria), then convene meetings of the village to decide on how to spend the funds, then put up accounts of how the money has been spent in a public place.

Several different models are possible, including whether to use a list of possible projects to select from, a negative list which just bans expenditure on certain activities or items (e.g. poppy cultivation, weapons purchase), or no criteria at all; whether villages are allowed to use the funds as a revolving fund and lend out money like a microlending structure, and whether villages can go ahead and approve their own projects or whether approval from a part of government is necessary. Villagers tend to like to design projects to build schools, micro-hydro, create market mechanisms, hire teachers, and organize their forestry, but they can also be very creative, setting up imaginative businesses. We recommend as open a system as possible, which allows villages to learn from their mistakes. As the program is intended to be multi-year, providing a block grant at regular intervals such as every year, if money is wasted in one year one would expect that lessons would be learned for the next.

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It seems kind of strange that the concept of self governance is innovative. The NSP does sound incredibly innovative, it may be one of those things where eventually we will collectively say to ourselves, "why didn't we think of that before?".

Posted by: Jonathon Zacharias on 19 Jul 07



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