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The contribution by Afgana Network to the Rome's Conference “Afghanistan to 2014 and beyond – Ask and Task”, 7-8 February 2013

From Afgana website
Photo by Romano Martinis

Emanuele Giordana*

Giovedi' 7 Febbraio 2013

Certain words appear with unerring regularity in reference to the conflict in Afghanistan: the Taleban, jihadists, security, transition, exit strategy, post 2014. The words we use to describe the situation or through which we try to imagine a future often conceal illusions or hopes, but they are also frequently used to fill a theoretical void. To be perfectly honest, it seems to me that the term ‘’civil society’’ (jemaa madani in Dari) fits into this category. Though it first started appearing in official speeches and dossiers a few years back, its use has increased sharply in recent times.

I would even say that, like the term ‘’gender’’, its presence has become de rigueur. But if we look a bit closer and ask ourselves what exactly the word means or represents, the matter gets a bit trickier. There hasn’t been a lot of study or research conducted on Afghan civil society, though some progress has been made over recent years. When we say the word ‘’Pashtun’’ we know what we are referring to, and the same goes for ‘’financial system’’. When we use the term ‘’civil society’’, on the other hand, we may very well mean different things or not even know what exactly it is we’re referring to. Or, at least, so it seems to me.

Some would say that it refers to that vast galaxy of NGOs whose operations and subsistence depend on international cooperation funds. These organised groups speak a language we find appealing, with frequent references to human rights, gender issues and services. They meet our needs, and perhaps those of the Afghan government as well, and so we set aside a bit of money for them. They are our little friends that make Afghan democracy stronger and more in step with the times, starting from the very language they use.

But is this Afghan civil society? According to the most attentive observers and scholars - Elizabeth Winter, for example, or our very own Giuliano Battiston – whether Afghan or Italian or British, civil society is a plurality of organised groups working outside of but not necessarily against a country’s institutions.

Others would say – and the Tokyo Conference undoubtedly scored a point in favour of this particular vision – civil society also includes businessmen. Those, that is, that have personal gain as their objective: not exactly what organised civil society should ideally aim for. And then still others say that civil society is simply society: but then are we referring to all of society? As in, all those not wearing a uniform, who belong to neither the police nor the military? The Italian election campaign, to cite an example close to home, is abusing the term left and right.


I have no intention of boring you with a theoretical debate that sparks heated discussion amongst those specialising in the subject - this subject that has only recently begun to be analysed. It is also only recently that these bottom-up initiatives have shown themselves to be a driving force highly beneficial to the countries themselves, or at least so it seems to me.

I am labouring under no illusions. I know full well that even within civil society there are unscrupulous individuals and associations that go at public and private funds as if they were bones to be gnawed at. However, in general these groups represent the desire we all have to preserve and develop our shared assets, whether they be institutions or the water we drink or the right to an education. And this holds true whether we are talking about Italy, Belgium, Canada or Afghanistan, whether New York or London, Tehran or Islamabad, or - of course - Kabul. These are by no means randomly chosen examples. Civil society can be considered a resource or a problem, a friend or an enemy. It can be helped and supported or silenced; it can be strengthened or used as a fig leaf, serving no purpose beyond that of its own existence.

What I am interested in doing here – in the company of those who have followed and continue to follow the evolution of this country we all love, and that as we all know has an uncanny ability to fascinate – is to pose a question. I would like to ask you how much time the international community has spent reflecting on the term ‘’civil society’’. How long has each one of us put into asking ourselves what the term really means, a term subjected to so much abuse in so many dossiers? Or have we accepted it grudgingly, as if it were some sort of toll to be paid? How much effort has gone into helping, sustaining, and developing Afghan civil society? To what extent do we believe it to be a pillar of civil coexistence and stimulus to do better, to remind us of our promises and commitments?

I believe very little effort has been put into it. Extremely little. I believe that despite the millions of dollars spent on surveys to see how Afghans see us, we have not spent so much as a tenth of that on studying Afghan civil society. And I wonder how much of all the money allocated to cooperation efforts has gone towards civil society. An in-depth study would reveal a great many surprising things. It would show that there are unimaginable associative forms at the village level and that we have underestimated religious networks in our dangerous equation of ‘’mullah equals danger’’. Do you have any idea of how many progressive mullahs there are in Afghanistan? Do you know how many poets associations there are? There may even be one per village, but just try and find a publisher willing to publish their works.

This is a small, tendentious example with the sole aim of prodding into action this audience of ours. I would simply like to toss a stone into the pond, hoping that the concentric ripples reach decision-makers’ consciences before 2014. Afterwards it will be too late to remember that a civil society really did exist, since these voluntary forms of association are as fragile as the roses brightening up Kabul gardens. Though their roots go deep and get them through the winter, they are by no means immortal. If watered and cared for during the summer months, however, they will not easily succumb to the ice and cold.

Go to Italian version


* journalist, is editor-in-chief of the “Terra” monthly magazine, president of the Association “Lettera22” and one of the hosts of Radio3Mondo (Rai third channel). He is also the porteparole of the “Afgana” Network. Consultant for the UN (Unops, Who, Undp), Ficross, Italian cooperation, Italian and international Ngo's, was also Deputy Chairman of the Association of Oriental Studies "Asia Maior" (until 2010) and Professor of Indonesian culture at the Ismeo, Milan, (until 1990). He is now helding courses on the relations between emergencies and information in many Italian Universities. His last publications: "Afghanistan" (Editori riuniti 2007) and "Diario da Kabul" (ObarraO 2010)



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