Finding civil society in Afghanistan

Jawed Ludin

Afghanistan today is characterized by a humanitarian crisis, a complex political emergency and, above all, a nearly collapsed state. But this does not mean a collapsed society. Despite the years of protracted war and misery, the Afghan spirit is still very much alive. You can see this in the revitalized streets of Kabul or the Afghan-dominated towns of Pakistan; we could all see it if we logged on to some of the chat rooms and email discussion lists run by Afghans living in the USA and Europe. Nevertheless, civil society in Afghanistan is, to put it bluntly, in crisis.

Many of the modern civil society organizations (CSOs) that did exist in Afghanistan have now been swept away. The same is true of some of the traditional institutions and norms that had governed people’s lives for centuries. Instead, war, political turmoil and social dislocation have resulted in the emergence of new sets of social relationships, a new range of social organizations. The nature of political society, which is the bedrock of civil society, has been transformed. People’s concepts of legitimacy, their old convictions, and their expectations of politics have changed.

The present historical juncture is a particularly testing time. Afghan civil society now faces the hard task of redefining itself before it can begin to play its part in constructing a well-governed society out of total chaos.

Mending the collapsed state

On 22 December 2001, a new government, agreed a few days earlier in Bonn by all Afghan sides, was sworn in. Unique circumstances led to the creation of a government, which, for all its precariousness, may provide a unique solution to some of Afghanistan’s long-standing problems. But will the new government mend the collapsed state? Will it reverse the humanitarian disaster, or transform Afghanistan’s complex political emergency? It would be naive to assume that it will do all this. After all, this is a government which lacks resources, experience and even democratic legitimacy, having been constructed as a compromise between ex-warlords, exiles and expatriates.

If transformation and mending are to be seen in Afghanistan, civil society must play an active role. Good governance emerges from a healthy and functioning civil society as much as, or even more than, it does from the state.

Much of the ‘civil society’ debate in political and development circles may well be rhetoric, but in Afghanistan we encounter the pure reality of the ‘civil society challenge’. However, it is not always clear what constitutes civil society in the context of Afghanistan? Where is it to be found and what does it look like? And, above all, how can it be strengthened?

Civil society and good governance

The fact that the idea of civil society has achieved such prominence in the rhetoric of governments as well as non-governmental actors owes much to the fact that ‘good governance’ has become a central political as well as developmental issue. The achievement of ‘good governance’ through mobilization and representation of group interests and the monitoring and reform of policies and practices of the state is widely held to be a core function of civil society. Western thinking also frequently associates civil society with such notions as citizenship, rights and democratic representation.

If we take this sort of understanding of civil society and apply it to Afghanistan today, the task of deciding what constitutes Afghan civil society becomes deeply problematic. In present-day Afghanistan, there is little chance of finding CSOs in the form of organized interest groups, run through democratic processes and based on the voluntary participation of individuals as equal citizens. In fact, apart from some organized communities in exile, and perhaps a very thin urban layer within Afghanistan, there is little that remotely fits this model.

Modern civil society in Afghanistan

This is not to say that such organizations have never existed. Modern civil society has had a short but lively history in Afghanistan. In the early twentieth century newly formed constitutionalist movements struggled for modernization and political reform. In the post World War II era a relatively sustained process of modernization led to a rapid growth of CSOs. The cities, notably Kabul, saw the formation of numerous interest-based organizations (eg business associations and occupational groups of doctors, architects, etc); social and recreational organizations (eg women’s groups, art and literary associations, sports clubs, etc); and cultural/religious/tribal organizations (eg organized religious minority communities, such as Hindus, tribal assemblies, etc). Many of these organizations were largely ‘separate’ from the state, ‘autonomous’ and ‘voluntary’.

During the last two decades, however, the destruction wrought by war has undermined or destroyed most functioning urban CSOs. At the same time, volatile social and political conditions, combined with increased exposure to the outside world, have galvanized the development of a new breed of social organization. Both inside Afghanistan and in the refugee communities outside the country, there has been large-scale creation of semi-political movements as well as social and community-based self-help organizations, including NGOs.

Most of the new CSOs in the country and within communities in exile bear certain characteristics that attest to the extraordinary conditions under which they have been created. The 14 years of Communist rule in Afghanistan (1978-92), for example, saw a growing trend towards government-sponsored CSOs. Among the large refugee communities in Pakistan a more or less similar trend occurred. Most of the community-based associations and self-help groups in the refugee camps were created either by the various military factions that fought Communist rule in Afghanistan or by international aid organizations. Afghan NGOs, which grew handsomely in number in the early 1990s, constituted one particular breed of this generation of CSOs in exile.

In most cases, however, these new Afghan CSOs were neither genuinely Afghan nor constituting civil society – properly speaking. The organizations sponsored by the regime in Kabul or the military factions in exile often formed an institutional component of their respective sponsors and, to that extent, were neither voluntary nor separate nor autonomous. In the case of Afghan NGOs, their creation was often driven by donor projects rather than voluntary participation. Although quite a few have attempted to transform themselves, they have a really long way to go before they can shed their unindigenous identity baggage, build indigenous constituency bases, and become truly Afghan CSOs.

While many of the exile-based organizations that currently pass for CSOs need to undergo a critical redefinition of themselves in the context of a new Afghanistan, the situation inside the country is dire indeed. Years of war, destruction and oppression have left Afghanistan drained of its urban intelligentsia. It may take a full generation or two for dispersed and dislocated urban communities to be reintegrated and for a coherent base for Afghan civil society to grow.

Encouraging examples must not, however, be overlooked. Even under the Taliban oppression, women’s groups in Kabul operated underground education cells. In many places, from Khost in the south to Badakhshan in the north, communities have come together to say ‘no’ to conscription.

A broader view of civil society

Outside the narrow ‘good governance’ approach, civil society can be seen more broadly as the realm of organized groups and associations which form an intermediate domain between the state, on the one hand, and the basic units of society, ie individual and family and private sector, on the other. Thus, any organization that exists and operates in this ‘intermediate domain’ and is to some extent separate from the state and autonomous from it, and based on the voluntary participation of its constituting members, can be called a CSO.

If we adopt this sort of approach to civil society and apply it to Afghanistan, we end up with a more diverse picture. In the culturally self-contained villages of rural Afghanistan, we find numerous examples of deeply embedded social organizations – tribal organizations, religious networks and other basic forms of social, political and economic organization. In rural Afghanistan, civil society – if that is the right term for it – is reflected in norms (eg tribal codes of justice, etc), institutions (eg jirgas – customary systems for collective decision-making, maintaining law and order, etc) and community-based systems for social and economic regulation (eg mirabs – for water regulation, upkeep of mosques, etc).

Though most of these tribal and religious norms, institutions and community-based organizations tend by nature to be rather conservative, even reactionary, they undoubtedly constitute an important asset in ensuring ‘good governance’ in rural Afghanistan – though there are some that, far from positively promoting good governance, may actually undermine it through pursuit of their sectional interests.


I will finish on an optimistic note. However impoverished, Afghan society has a number of characteristics that bode well for CSOs. Over the past three decades the people of Afghanistan have seen oppressive and criminal governments come and go, wars fought in their name and the spoils traded. There has been massive social dislocation and extensive political corruption at the macro level. Despite this, Afghan society has retained its integrity. The unanimous voice of Afghans in favour of peace, so recently heard, is a clear manifestation of this.

Jawed Ludin is an Afghan peace and development worker living in Britain. He works for BOND (British Overseas NGOs for Development), London, as Learning and Development Officer. He can be contacted at

For more information, visit the British
Agencies Afghanistan Group website at

Useful websites UN humanitarian assistance programme, Islamabad/Kabul
(on the humanitarian situation and the aid response) (on the humanitarian situation (for background information, news and discussions) World Bank Group UK Department for International Development UN Information Centre in London

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