Aug. 6, 2013, 1:29 p.m.
Originally published on NDI.org on August 5th, 2013: While politics at the presidential level receives the most attention in Afghanistan, what’s happening at the local level can have a more direct impact on the way Afghans live. The 420 councilors (PCs) who serve on 34 provincial councils are for most Afghans the only elected representatives they are likely to meet, making them the face of government for most citizens. And while the Afghan constitution also calls for councilors at the municipal, district and village levels, none have yet been elected. PCs, on the other hand, live in their home districts and regularly engage with their neighbors, resolving community conflicts and informing constituents about government activities. Through these interactions, they can help build Afghans’ confidence in public institutions and its fledgling democratic system. The 34 councils, one for each province, range from nine to 29 members, depending on population. The councilors’ primary responsibilities are to ensure that citizen’s views are reflected in provincial development planning; to monitor and evaluate development programs; to manage conflicts among tribes, villages and districts; and to oversee provincial development spending. Many of those elected in Afghanistan’s first polls in 2005 had little political experience. NDI helped them learn on the job, and ahead of elections in 2009, carried out an intensive campaign planning program that engaged male and female trainers chosen by the political parties to help train fellow members or candidates. The program eventually reached about 3,400 people across 20 provinces. The Institute also ran two-week campaign schools before the elections for 236 of the 328 female candidates seeking PC seats, including 80 of the 122 who were elected. After the councilors took their seats, NDI helped them focus on their rights, responsibilities and legal mandate as councilors. The Institute has continued to support the PCs by providing monitoring and evaluation training, technical support for constituency outreach activities, and assistance with interaction between the PCs and their colleagues in parliament and other central government bodies. They also helped the officeholders collect constituent input, from town hall meetings to public hearings, prioritize development programs and monitor expenditures. As a result of the program, PCs have worked with both constituents and government to make sure funds are spent properly. They started by identifying development projects in their provinces, such as school construction, well digging, and seed distribution, then visited the Ministry of Finance to get relevant documentation: the project proposal, contracting documents and tenders. Reviewing these documents gave PCs an overview of the entire process – starting with bidding and contracting. The purpose was to ensure transparency so the lowest bidder/highest quality contractor was selected instead of someone being chosen for political or other reasons. The councilors then inspected projects – with the documentation and an independent expert to provide analysis. But councilors ran into problems. Sometimes communities were not consulted in advance about development projects, so implementers ended up building things the community didn’t need, or construction companies didn’t follow the contracts and did a poor job of construction. After the PCs finished their site visits, NDI helped them put together thorough reports on what they observed that they could take to the ministry responsible and demand that problems were addressed. For example, earlier this year Mowlavi Ghani, a provincial councilor from Sar-e Pol Province, was able to halt a wasteful road construction project between the villages of Imam-i-Kurd, Imam-i-Khalan, and Sar-e Pol City. Councilor Ghani worked with his provincial council chair, Asadullah Khuram, and representatives of the Department of Public Works, the Sar-e Pol City municipal government, and the Provincial Governor’s Office to resolve the situation and halt the wasteful construction. Councilor Ghani said his NDI training provided the knowledge he needed to halt the waste. In 2013 alone, NDI helped PCs make a total of 76 site visits to inspect 728 projects, allowing councilors to build trust within their communities and hold governments accountable for properly completed projects. To make sure citizens have a say, PCs hold regular public hearings — including nearly 60 so far this year — and meetings with NGOs, members of parliament and other government officials. These increased responsibilities have also created new demands on the ministries. Ministers were invited to training sessions so they were briefed on the legal rights of councilors, would come to expect an increase in inquiries and oversight by PCs, and would have proper documentation ready. NDI has connected PCs and members of parliament, helping them work together on a draft law setting forth the powers and responsibilities of PCs. On June 25, NDI Afghanistan was honored by the Upper House of the Afghan National Assembly, or Meshrano Jirga, for its work helping PCs address local needs and build bridges between local and national levels of government. NDI’s current work with PCs is funded by the United States Agency for International Development. The trainings offered for women candidates were funded by the Canadian International Development Agency.