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Civil Society in Afghanistan: A Framework for Long-term Impact

Afghanistan, February 18, 2003

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    Mercy Corps is using a civil society approach to help build cooperation between community groups and businesses in Helmand, Afghanistan. Photo: Cassandra Markham Nelson/Mercy Corps Photo:

It is Mercy Corps' long-standing mission to alleviate suffering, poverty and oppression by helping people build secure, productive and just communities. To this end, beginning in the late 1980s Mercy Corps began to systematically integrate its programming with activities to strengthen civil society and thus empower people to participate in the economic, political and social activities and decisions that affect their lives.

Drawing on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Mercy Corps identified the principles of Accountability, Participation, and Peaceful Change as integral components to a functioning Civil Society. Mercy Corps defines these key principles as follows:

Accountability: the ability of citizens to hold those with decision-making power responsible for the decisions they make. In a society that values accountability, people have access to their leaders and confidence in the "rule of law."

Participation: the ability of people to engage in the process and decisions that affect their lives. Participation requires concerted outreach to include traditionally marginalized groups such as women and minorities.

Peaceful Change: the process and manner in which communities manage, react to and influence change. A functioning civil society has mechanisms for solving conflict without resorting to violence.

Mercy Corps South Asia incorporates the Civil Society Framework and these guiding principles into its diverse portfolio of programs. Rather than establishing separate civil society initiatives, Mercy Corps emphasizes that there is one country program with multiple activities, all focused on achieving a common vision of meeting the needs of conflict affected people and strengthening the community's ability to solve its own problems in a peaceful, accountable and participatory way.

The Bolan Farming Association in Helmand, Afghanistan is one example of this approach. Based on its Civil Society Framework, Mercy Corps is focused on building cooperation between community groups and businesses in Helmand, Afghanistan. With funding from the British Government’s Department for International Development (DFID), a group of farmers, who used to be formed into a co-operative prior to the Soviet occupation, have again come together to produce vegetables for sale during the off-season. By covering their vegetables with plastic sheeting they are able to grow vegetables in the winter and beat the market competition in vegetables from Pakistan before they are able to export to Afghanistan. The co-operative also takes advantage of collective purchasing power to get better prices for fertilizer and other items, shares farming equipment such as a tractor, and deposits profits from their harvest into a common bank account where it earns interest.

Mercy Corps has served as a facilitator, bringing farmers and communities together to identify problems, prioritize needs, and develop innovative solutions. Preliminary results shows that this initiative has led to feelings of empowerment, heightened citizen leadership and involvement in resolving issues, and increased economic opportunities for the communities involved.

Mercy Corps' civil society activities are rooted in collaboration. By working in partnership with local associations, government authorities, NGOs and private businesses the organization can better enable them to identify and work towards solutions to their most pressing problems. Given the crosscutting approach Mercy Corps South Asia has taken to integrating civil society principles, it is difficult to separate out civil society activities in its programs. However, the organization is committed to incorporating civil society activities into all aspects of relief and development programs in South Asia and around the world.