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Empowering Afghanistan’s civil society to decipher, debate, and demand climate change reforms

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Building the capacity of Afghan CSOs to understand the impacts of climate change, bring it to the forefront of public discussions, and take action.

‘It’s a huge challenge to build climate change awareness and accountability in Afghanistan. We do not have adequate scientific evidence, documentation of grassroots concerns and public discussions. There hasn’t been any coordinated civil society participation on this issue. We are the first such group to get together,’ said Mohammed Ehsan Zia, President and CEO of Tadbeer Consulting Inc., at the end of a capacity-building workshop for Afghan civil society organisations (CSOs) organised in New Delhi by the DFID-funded Action on Climate Today (ACT) programme.

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The prevailing geopolitical conditions further complicate the issue. After 2001, international partners supported democracy in Afghanistan and the number of CSOs began to grow. However, violence and inadequate advocacy space to influence public policy have limited the opportunities available for civil society to represent climate concerns in national policy-making. There has been no institutionalised way for the public to engage with or demand accountability on climate change reforms. With concerns about climate change and its direct impact on communities growing, CSOs’ role is instrumental in bridging the gap between policy-makers and suffering communities.

According to a report published by United Nation General Assembly, ‘Afghanistan is not in a post-conflict situation, where sufficient stability exists to focus on institution-building and development-oriented activities, but a country undergoing a conflict that shows few signs of abating.’

Climate change exacerbates these conflicts and negatively affects the livelihoods of Afghans. The 2012 Global Climate Risk Index ranks Afghanistan among the countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. It is also among the 10 most fragile countries in the world, the top 20 in terms of disaster deaths and the top 30 with regard to the number of people affected by natural disasters.  

Afghanistan is also experiencing high levels of migration from rural to urban areas, making Kabul the fifth fastest-growing city in the world. Several factors are driving this migration, including security threats as well as the degradation of rural livelihoods owing to frequent climatic shocks and stresses. Kabul is not prepared for these migrants in terms of jobs, security or infrastructure.

‘Much more work remains to be done to effectively build the country’s adaptive capacity towards climate change resiliency, and our government, while it endeavours to optimise its resource, cannot do it alone. We need support from and partnerships with non-government actors such as our development partners, the private sector and civil society organisations,’ said Mr Schah Zaman Maiwandi, Director General of the National Environmental Protection Agency, at the Technical Dialogue on Adaptation and Resilience at DFID headquarters in Whitehall, London.

Building accountability through civil society action

There is a clear need to build the capacity of civil society champions who could engage with academia, media, policy-makers and other relevant actors to bring climate actions to the forefront of public discussion.

The ACT initiative, a DFID-funded climate change adaptation programme in South Asia, decided to build a civil society network that could advocate and represent local climate concerns and hold the government accountable for dedicated actions toward climate resilience. It worked towards raising the awareness of Afghan civil society on climate change impacts and adaptation strategies, so as to build the knowledge base and research capacity and their ongoing engagement in national and international policy debates for pushing forward government’s intent in this direction.

ACT focused on the capacity creation, capacity utilisation and capacity retention of the CSOs, thus enabling them to take ownership of local climate issues and identify adaptation solutions – simultaneously engaging with communities, media, academicians, policy-makers and political leaders.  The aim was to engage civil society in decision-making for shaping climate policies and demand accountability from the government for shaping climate reforms.

ACT, in partnership with a civil society coalition of 160 organisations in South Asia – Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA) – organised a two-day capacity-building workshop for Afghanistan CSOs in New Delhi. This included sessions to gauge their institutional strengths, weaknesses and opportunities for integrating climate change adaptation into their development initiatives. The workshop covered a range of issues, from assessing disaster risk reduction approaches, to advocacy strategies, to opportunities for accessing climate finance. This was followed by an exposure visit to drought-prone regions in northern India, which provided first-hand experience of the functioning of adaptation interventions.

This workshop helped establish the Climate Action Network Afghanistan in February 2018, as the National Steering Committee of CANSA. The workshop led to the adoption of a joint action plan for civil society action on climate change, Climate Resilient Afghanistan: A Civil Society Climate Change Action Plan. It supported the network to prepare a climate change position paper to present key policy and advocacy issues to the Afghan government. It also formalised membership with CANSA and developed a joint communications strategy for Afghan CSOs to raise awareness on climate change issues.

‘Until three or four years ago, we didn’t have any faculty in our universities to teach environment or climate change. We are still poor in terms of knowledge. These capacity development workshops help simplify climate change and equally importantly provides us with exposure to South Asian networks,’ says Ajmal Shirzai, Country Director, Future Generation, a development non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Afghanistan.

Joining forces: Networking within and beyond Afghanistan

With the successful establishment of the National Steering Committee of CANSA in Afghanistan, Afghan civil society members are now linked with a wide network of climate change actors in South Asia. They can collaborate on joint research studies, implementation projects, regional knowledge-sharing programmes in South Asia and shared fundraising opportunities. Other benefits include replication of best practices tailored to the context of Afghanistan, understanding the enablers and barriers with regard to institutional development, peer-to-peer learning and putting forth voices from Afghanistan at international platforms such as the annual Conference of Party meetings of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

With a membership of 16 CSOs already, this growing national network has also created prospects for bringing together Afghan civil society actors under a common platform. ‘We can now build a shared understanding and act with the same voice, with the same objective; we can be an effective force of change. We know that in Afghanistan, about 35–40 organisations are working on different issues related to climate change and environmental protection. CANSA Afghanistan provides us with an opportunity to identify them and bring them under one umbrella,’ says one newly elected member.

The initiative has also provided the national government and international community with a forum to collaborate and work closely with civil society members in the country. ‘It was difficult to identify different thematic experts working on sectoral issues in the country. CANSA Afghanistan now acts as a single point of contact for us that can put us in touch with a wider community of sectoral experts and civil society actors. This network makes it easier for us to reach out to NGO and CSO community in the country,’ says Mohammad Agha, representative of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) Afghanistan.

Civil society to pave the way forward

The NGO members, with varying technical capacities and strengths, offer a range of services to the government, donors and international agencies. CANSA Afghanistan has been successfully engaging with donors such as Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and international organisations such as FAO to organise joint technical dialogues and knowledge-sharing events.

The civil society network has also partnered with United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to receive funding from the Small Grants Programme for implementation of climate change and capacity-building initiatives. As a result, members of CANSA Afghanistan have submitted six proposals to UNDP to secure funding for activities jointly taken up by the network.

Building climate change resilience in the current political economic context in Afghanistan is a mammoth task. No resilience measures can be sustained without the active participation of civil society. Through this participatory long-term engagement, ACT has provided CSOs with the tools to take a leadership role in ensuring Afghanistan’s growth and development doesn’t lose momentum in the midst of Afghanistan’s geopolitical and environmental challenges.

This article was previously published by ACT in On the Frontiers of Climate Change. Find out more about ACT's work.

Image credit: ACT on Flickr