Local Democracy and Development Go Hand-in-Hand
Mahmud-i-Raqi, Kapisa Province—Mushtari, a 42-year-old high school graduate and secretary of the District Development Assembly of Mahmudi-Raqi district, some 80 kilometres north of Kabul, is presenting to fellow Assembly members a project to build a primary school for girls.
Having just completed a six-day workshop on project design, monitoring and financial management, Mushtari speaks assuredly on the project goals, a security assessment of the village where the proposed school would be built and an overall work plan for the project.
- Since 2006, almost every district of Afghanistan—388 out of a total of 402—has appointed and supported a District Development Assembly.
- In over 120 of these districts, the UNDP programme has established District Information Centres to collect and provide reliable and much needed data on development and the social and economic aspects of their respective districts.
- The UNDP programme has contributed to the building of a 150-metre irrigation canal that put a stop to recurring fights over water distribution among villagers and increased crop yields.
Though covered and invisible behind the burqa, the traditional veil that many Muslim women wear, Mushtari’s voice is loud and clear. She is actually participating in a UNDP-supported mock training exercise, meant to conclude the training programme, but the Assembly members are real and they listen to her with attention and respect.
Since 2006, almost every district of Afghanistan—388 out of a total of 402—has appointed and supported a District Development Assembly, thanks to UNDP support to a nationwide programme focused on creating legitimate and accountable local governing bodies.
Additionally, in over 120 of these districts, the governance programme has established District Information Centres to collect and provide reliable and much needed data on development and the social and economic aspects of their respective districts.
In contrast to the traditional jirgas and other forms of village level governing groups, Assembly members are elected by the people they serve and are mainly tasked with improving the quality, transparency and ongoing sustainability of rural development projects. As part of the initiative, most of the new Assemblies and their members have received training in local governance, conflict resolution, the importance of gender equality and the nuts and bolts of making development projects happen, from fundraising and procurement to monitoring and implementation.
“In the absence of a functional court system, locals prefer us over the courts when it comes to arbitrating reconciliation among families and neighbours,” says Mohammad Malang Miskinyaar, 50, chairperson of the Mahmud-i-Raqi Assembly for which Mushtari acts as secretary.
He also says that while the jirgas sometimes made decisions that went against modern Afghanistan law, the District Development Assembly system goes in accordance with the law. Equally important, the Assemblies include elected female representatives, resulting in the real concerns and voices of women being openly expressed and addressed by the Assemblies.
A resident of Deh Baba Ali village in Mahmud-i-Raqi district, Mushtari has risen from being a member of her district’s Development Assembly to the role of secretary since the Assembly was first established three years earlier. A mother of six, she volunteers for three hours a day to do the Assembly’s work. She is especially keen on meeting women from the district’s villages individually and in groups, listening to their issues and bringing them to the
Mushtari says that poverty among women in the district is widespread, and she believes the Assembly has been key in bringing forward projects that benefit women in particular.
“Our District Development Assembly has already done a good job of implementing income-generation projects for women such as bee-keeping, tomato processing and baking,” Mushtari says.
In Sufian village, part of Mir Bacha Kot district on the outskirts of Kabul province, vineyard owner Ghulam Mohiuddin praises his District Development Assembly’s success in the building of a 150-metre irrigation canal that has not only put a stop to recurring fights over water distribution among villagers but has resulted in an increase in their crop yields. For example, Mohiuddin’s vineyards are now producing 80 percent of their full potential yield, compared to 50 percent the previous year.
“The canal has been a boon,” he says.
Back in Mahmud-i-Raqi district, District Development Assembly members are proud of the capacity they have built for themselves over the last three years in proposal riting, project design, monitoring, procurement and financial management.
Looking forward, however, Miskinyaar, the Assembly’s chair, worries that members do not yet draw a salary, and that they still lack regular funding to run Assembly affairs.
“With expectations soaring, we often find ourselves spending long hours addressing issues that the locals bring to us,” says one member.
“Even though a small grant of US$170 a month is provided, it is hardly enough to meet our daily needs.”
Meanwhile, the district itself is crying out for resources to match many of the plans that its Assembly has rolled out in its district development plan. Before the creation of the District Development Assemblies, there were very few rural development projects underway in Afghanistan and those that existed were poorly implemented. Miskinyaar cites the example of a failed energy project based on diesel generators that were too expensive to maintain.
“Now if the District Development Assembly was to put its mind to an energy project, we would propose a micro hydroelectric project that stands a better test of sustainability,” says Waris, the Assembly’s deputy chair.
The Assemblies’ success in Afghanistan has spurred progress in developing a unified policy for coherent, decentralized districtlevel development. Going forward, a recent Presidential Decree has tasked UNDP’s partner ministry, Afghanistan’s Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, with unifying a number of the District Development Assemblies with other existing shuras into District Coordination Councils. UNDP and the Ministry are playing a leading role in preparing regulations for the establishment of these new Councils, which will be ultimately responsible for coordinating development and governance at the district level.