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After Geneva – the new challenges and risks facing NGOs and civil society in Afghanistan

In light of new risks and challenges for NGO and civil society, this blog elaborates on new developments and on the trajectory of the peace process in Afghanistan.

Published: 30 March 2021

Authors: Mark Bowden

Since the Geneva Pledging Conference in November last year, key changes in the political and operational context have impacted civil society and NGOs. This blog, building on a Lessons for Peace (L4P) report , provides new contextual analysis in light of recent developments on the risks facing civil society and NGOs and elaborates on the trajectory of the peace process in Afghanistan.

Civil society activists have felt particularly threatened over the past months by a spate of reportedly targeted attacks. A recent UNAMA human rights report highlighted that the spike in the number of killings of human rights workers and journalists has generated a climate of fear and insecurity, particularly given the absence of any claims of responsibility. Civil society actors have received direct threats, suffered intimidation at both the local and national level, and fear for their safety and that of their families. Many of these actors are now seeking safe houses and better protection or to leave the country.

However, civil society actors recognise that these threats are just one manifestation of more fundamental challenges constraining their ability to operate and contribute effectively to Afghanistan’s social and economic development. The faltering peace process appears to have changed the political climate, hindering humanitarian and development activities across Afghanistan. The operational challenges of working in Taliban areas have grown as increased and more consistent demands for taxation are being made and new conditions are being set for NGO activities that limit their engagement in women’s programme as well as in government social protection and development programmes.

NGO and civil society relationships with Government remain tense as a result of the continuing uncertainty about the government of Afghanistan’s introduction of a new NGO Law. Despite its revisions, NGOs and civil society see the law as creating unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles and threatening their survival through the financial controls that are proposed. Further tensions between the government of Afghanistan and NGOs have been fuelled by donor increases to “off budget” expenditure.

NGOs and civil society are now working in a markedly different environment than they were a year ago. The uncertain peace negotiations, concerns over the withdrawal of US troops, and the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic have all contributed to NGOs and civil society actors feeling anxious about the future. These factors have also created a new political environment in which both the Afghan government and the Taliban are keen to assert their own legitimacy with the Afghan people while denying the other’s legitimacy. In Taliban-controlled or contested areas, the rules and conduct of NGO and civil society operations are changing. The past months have seen the extension and strengthening of Taliban governance down to district level with a seemingly more centralised and unified approach to the implementation and enforcement of their policies.

In Taliban-controlled or contested areas, the rules and conduct of NGO and civil society operations are changing.

The Taliban Commission for the Regulation and Control of NGOs and Companies has established criteria and guidance for all NGOs and charitable organisations requiring NGO registration and approval of all projects undertaken within areas of their control and in contested areas. Direct or indirect taxation is being more regularly levied by the Taliban based on the assessed value of a project’s funding, the details of which must be supplied by the NGO to the Taliban.

In recent months, the NGO Commission has issued instructions that prohibit NGO engagement with the Afghan government’s social protection activities (specifically the World Bank-funded REACH programme) and have prohibited NGO engagement with local Community Development Councils. Other prohibitions have been made regarding involvement in Women’s Economic Empowerment programmes and support to women’s engagement in sport. These political actions by the Taliban are directed at what they identify as President Ghani’s personal flagship programmes and are designed to contest the legitimacy of his government.

Although the Taliban continues to provide assurances that NGO humanitarian programmes are welcome, the nature of the NGO-Taliban relationship and dialogue has markedly changed. In this new political environment, the Taliban are making greater demands for recognition and setting more challenging conditions for all types of assistance in areas under their control or influence. Agreements on early childhood education and, most recently, in the management of immunisation programmes, raise concerns about Taliban attitudes to the roll out of COVID-19 vaccines.

The nature of NGO relations with the Taliban are also challenged by the strengthening of the Taliban’s hierarchical structure and their more centralised approach to policy. Historically, NGOs have engaged with the Taliban at the local level, often mediated by community elders. The increasing marginalisation of community elders has pushed many NGOs to engage more broadly at the central (Doha) level to resolve issues of taxation, registration concerns and broader policy issues such as the development of cash programming .

NGOs and civil society face a deteriorating relationship with the government of Afghanistan, with greater financial risk

The Geneva Conference perfectly underlined the Afghan government’s ambivalence in attitude and approaches to NGOs and civil society. On the one hand, NGOs and CSOs were given a greater voice in the Conference, with indicators in the Afghanistan Partnership Framework recognising their critical role in delivering the Afghanistan National Peace and Development Framework. On the other hand, statements made by the first Vice President and comments from the President reflect suspicion and hostility, and a demand for greater control over NGOs and civil society.

This ambivalence is fuelled by the Government of Afghanistan’s concerns over competition for resources and legitimacy. In reaction to the short-term pledges made at the Geneva conference and the US reduction in “on budget” funding, President Ghani has renewed his efforts to control “off budget” expenditures made through NGOs using instruments such as the new NGO Law and a review and audit of all existing agreements between the Afghan government and NGOs. These measures seek to align the work of NGOs with government policies and strategies, providing stronger controls over the “third sector” to ensure that it does not duplicate or replace the role of government.

NGOs are concerned that the law will result in the government of Afghanistan controlling and directing their finances rather than just encouraging greater greater alignment. Donor interventions have led to further discussions and revisions over the NGO Law. While these revisions address some of the concerns of NGOs, a number of clauses have been retained that unduly affect their internal governance, administration and dissolution. The revisions have also added new burdensome elements to the NGO law on the responsibilities of line ministries, the recruitment processes and NGO service provision, with restrictions on profit-making that would limit their ability to act as service providers.

More recently, the government of Afghanistan established a legal office within the President’s office to audit and review MoUs, agreements and the accountability of NGOs. The President has long held the view that some line ministries have initiated too many projects with donor support and NGO implementation that weaken the government’s strategic objectives. This has resulted in a large number of MoUs between line Ministries and NGOs, a number of which relate to immediate humanitarian activities. The current review and audit of all MoUs and agreements with initiated by the President and first Vice President has resulted in the suspension of all current agreements and raised donor and NGO concerns over the disruption of humanitarian assistance.

Increasing financial risks to NGOs and civil society

At the time of the Geneva conference in November 2020, national and international NGOs and civil society actors were clearly facing increasing and unacceptable levels of financial risk. This shift was signalled by changes in contracting arrangements and a likely dramatic downturn in international private voluntary funding. Over the last three months, some of these fears were substantiated by a significant decline in international private voluntary funding, a critical source of unrestricted financing that is often essential for the survival of NGOs and civil society organisations in Afghanistan.

Alongside reductions in private voluntary funding, donor funding has seriously declined – more than was previously anticipated. At the global level, the global economic downturn has reduced humanitarian financing, a major source of NGO income, and the impact on the current Afghanistan Humanitarian Appeal remains to be seen.

The recent operational conditions imposed by the Taliban will also have major financing implications for a number of national and international NGOs, particularly the Facilitating Partners (FPs) engaged in the Citizens’ Charter and those NGOs that were preparing to engage in the REACH programme. In this environment, it is almost inevitable that NGO programmes will be cut, and that local CSOs and NGOs will struggle. As the NGO sector is a major employer in the formal labour market, this will likely lead to significant job losses and create further economic harm.

Looking ahead: the future of NGOs and civil society in Afghanistan

Under this new political dynamic, NGOs and civil society actors are facing greater financial challenges through increasing pressure by both the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban to compete for resources and operating space. NGOs can advocate for the following measures to mitigate these pressures:

1. A new approach to dialogue

The changing dynamic between the Taliban and NGOs requires a new approach. NGOs will find the space for their activities squeezed between the demands of the Taliban and the concerns of the donor community and the government of Afghanistan about the ability of NGOs to deliver services, including supporting and extending community development. The current ad hoc nature of engagement has not allowed for a collective dialogue between NGOs and the Taliban. NGOs also remain uneasy about their interests being represented through the existing UN humanitarian dialogue with the Taliban.

While it remains extremely unlikely under the current political climate that agreed operational ground rules can be established with the Taliban, there is value in a collective discussion on development principles and priorities for service delivery and infrastructure support. This in turn could provide the basis for maintaining and extending the effective role of NGOs in Afghanistan.

2. Strengthen the collective voice of civil society

While there is a need to change the nature and tone of the dialogue with both the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban, NGOs and civil society will only be successful if they develop a stronger collective voice. Discussions with both the Taliban and the Government should be based on a framework that provides civil society actors with their own voice as part of a broader dialogue.

While it is unlikely that the Taliban would agree to a discussion on ground rules per se, the UN should consider initiating a dialogue with them around agreed development principles and priorities. These would both provide the basis for a commitment to principles and open a discussion on ground rules. While larger NGOs may wish to maintain their bilateral engagement, a UN initiated dialogue with elected NGO and civil society representation would strengthen their collective voice.

3. Donor support to security measures

There is an urgent need to establish an effective protection mechanism that can help meet the security needs of civil society and NGOs in Afghanistan. The donor community recognises that civic space is under serious threat but addressing security concerns requires action by the Afghan government. The nature of today’s discourse between the government and civil society is at best ambiguous when it comes to protecting NGOs and civil society actors.

Changing the nature and tone of the dialogue between the government of Afghanistan and NGOs and civil society to one of greater collaboration and mutual support is essential. The donor community should urgently consider measures and financial support for the increased security costs of NGOs and civil society actors. Donors should also support initiatives to provide safe houses and the relocation of individuals under threat.

4. Create a national NGO-civil society forum

Finally, the unsatisfactory nature of the current dialogue between the government of Afghanistan and NGOs suggests the need to establish a broader consultative mechanism. This cannot be adequately provided by the Ministry of Economy and will need to involve the Office of the President. It will need to broadly representative of the range of national and international NGOs and civil society groupings.

The development of a national NGO-civil society forum that provides a broad and representative basis for developing a stronger collective voice could be considered as a key element of the new consultative mechanism. Establishing a broad-based forum would also provide the basis for strengthening the sector as a whole and supporting the development of national, regional and provincial capacity. While the deficiencies in the legal framework for NGOs and civil society need to be addressed, the dialogue also needs to tackle the immediate concerns of protecting civic space and developing long term strategies that strengthen the sector’s ability to support national systems of service delivery.