Three years on: What has the NUG done for public participation?

By: Sayed Ikram Afzali,  Executive Director

The United States top commander in Afghanistan General Nicholson has recently warned the Taliban that “we are on our way to win.” However, SIGAR’s recent findings paint a different picture: only 56.7% of the districts are under the Afghan Government’s direct control or influence; this is the lowest level since December 2015. Nevertheless, let’s imagine for a moment that General Nicholson has good reasons to believe that the Taliban would either have to surrender or would be wiped out. Would that be the end of the Afghanistan’s problems? Of course, not. The underlying problem of mistrust and weak government legitimacy due to corruption and bad governance would remain in place which would continue to provide a breeding ground for insurgency leading to insecurity in the most volatile region in the world.

To address the problem of legitimacy and public distrust, the Afghan government and the international community should ask themselves what they provide to the Afghan public that the Taliban did not provide them before the US invasion in 2001. Is it security and justice, the two fundamental needs of any society? Not really. Is it a hope for a better life and an open society where Afghan citizens can participate in the decisions that affect their lives? Certainly, yes. But has the Afghan government and international community been able to translate this hope into some reality in the last decade and a half with over hundreds of billions of dollars of expenditure? The answer is not a straightforward one. While there has been some progress in important areas such as health and education, government institutions have largely worked as centers of protecting interests of the corrupt political elite.

Institutional capture, corruption, and bad governance prevent public participation and increase citizens’ distrust and therefore weakens the legitimacy of the government. This might have been the reason that anti-corruption and public participation slogans dominated the National Unity Government (NUG) leaders’ election campaigns. Both leaders made numerous promises to fight corruption and increase public participation in governance. Afghan CEO Dr. Abdullah even chanted the slogan of “empower me so I can give power back to you.” President Ghani said in a radio interview that “…the most significant thing is public participation. That assures the Afghan public that our promises are not empty.” But how much power has been given back to the citizens and how many of the promises have not been empty so far, are hard questions that the NUG leaders must answer.

Initiation of the Citizens Charter program is a major effort by the NUG to give citizens a voice in the development process. In addition, the government has taken steps to delegate some role to provincial authorities through provincial budgeting policy and has allocated one million dollars for each province in the National Budget 2018. Nevertheless, a recent report of Integrity Watch shows that the role of the citizens to decide their development priorities has been missing. Participatory budgeting has a huge potential for public participation but has been largely ignored. Participatory budgeting goes well beyond the traditional participation of MPs, provincial council members, and provincial authorities. Participatory budgeting “is a democratic process in which community members directly decide how to spend part of a public budget.” It allows citizens to directly engage with the government on how their tax money should be spent and to influence decisions that affect their lives. The NUG should use participatory budgeting to give people an opportunity to have a say in how they should be governed and to challenge the power of the corrupt political elite who have captured many of the institutions and have disenfranchised the citizens.

Another important area is public participation in municipal governance. There is not even a single elected mayor in the whole country. Although lack of resources and weak capacity of electoral institutions are the major stated reasons for not holding mayors elections, the underlying reason seems to be more the tendency of political and bureaucratic leadership to centralize power and a top-down approach to governance. The NUG leaders must empower citizens through ensuring their participation at the municipal level. Public participation in municipal decisions has been among the lowest rated indicators according to a recent citizens’ report card survey carried out by Integrity Watch in eight major cities of Afghanistan (to be published). Therefore, the NUG should come up with a clear plan to hold mayors’ elections in the next two years. In the meantime, the NUG should ensure public participation through less formal means such as elections of local council representatives to form municipal assemblies. Such elections would not require huge capacity and resources but would significantly increase public participation.

The NUG leaders have less than two years to implement their campaign promises to win the trust of the Afghan citizens and to prevent losing control over territory and population while fighting an active insurgency. It is time for action.