Governance that Centers Communities: Lessons from Afghanistan and Sierra Leone

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With the world struggling with a global pandemic, increasing attention is being paid to the potential of community-owned and -led initiatives to address poverty, mobilize crisis response, and increase human security and well-being in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

On October 14th, IPI, with co-sponsors Catalyst for Peace, the Institute for State Effectiveness, the Government of Sierra Leone, and the Permanent Mission of Afghanistan to the UN, held a virtual policy forum to discuss the on-the-ground experiences of two countries that are integrating community-centered initiatives into national government policy, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan.

Introducing the subject, Jimena Leiva Roesch, IPI Senior Fellow and Head of the Peace and Sustainable Development Program, explained, “We ask for these inclusive and leave-no-one behind frameworks that center on community, both as the heart of the 2030 Agenda and in the Sustaining Peace resolutions. So at the global policy level, we know that this is our aspiration, but we rarely find examples in the field of how you transform these aspirations into reality. And of course, the local level is a lot more complicated than these aspirations. When you get to work and roll up your sleeves, it’s not as lofty.”

Francess Piagie Alghali, Minister of State for the Office of the Vice President, Government of Sierra Leone, said that one of the main drivers of conflict in her country had been “the lack of inclusive dialogue platforms at the community level, and the lack of participation. People feel that they don’t belong to these communities when they lose their livelihoods, and there is nowhere where they can address some of these issues, and then the next thing that they do is turn to violence.”

She said that her government reasoned that the best way to avert some of these violent incidents was to strengthen local governments and the decentralization process. “We believe that local councils, local governments know and understand their communities better and are well placed to implement initiatives to build social cohesion and to reap the resulting benefits of stronger, more resilient and productive communities.”

The government has now incorporated a people’s planning model called the Wan Fambul Framework for Inclusive Governance and Local Development, an instrument not only for economic development but also to build peace, social cohesion, and inclusion. “It’s a unique model,” Minister Alghali said. “It sparks the imagination of communities. It makes the communities feel that they are part of the development. It engenders leadership and inclusivity. And one unique component of this framework is that it gives prominence to women and former groups that have not been included in the conversation in the communities, like disabled people, like youths. Those people feel that they have a say in the way their communities are being run.”

She said that the community structures that had been developed using the Wan Fambul framework had helped the country cope with current crises. “For example, we used these frameworks to address the Ebola pandemic that we recently went through. We use these frameworks to address natural disasters. We are using this framework to address the COVID pandemic now, in unique and innovative ways, like sending the message of hand washing and spreading the message of socially distanced gatherings. These are the governance structures that we use, and they have worked quite well.”

The Wan Fambul framework is now being legislated into law, giving it permanence in the structure and governance of Sierra Leone. “Once it is legislated, it makes any government that comes to power obliged to follow this framework, and it also means it must be part of the budget allocation for the government.”

Sierra Leone is applying the lesson of Wan Fambul to its fulfillment of the SDGs, Ms. Alghali said. “As a country, we believe that the first step in achieving the SDGs by 2030 is for us to be able to sustain peace and national cohesion, which is the bedrock of any form of development. Without peace, without cohesion, there is not going to be development, and in order to do that, we have to strengthen governance at the community level by putting communities at the center of the planning process. This is what we have done in Sierra Leone as a model by incorporating the Wan Fambul Framework in our governance and structure. And we hope that other countries will emulate this good example.”

Adela Raz, Permanent Representative of Afghanistan to the UN, recounted how the country had pursued its community-driven development using its people- centric Citizens’ Charter National Priority Program. “Through our Citizens’ Charter, we have empowered Afghan communities to identify, plan, manage, and monitor development projects.” She said that projects have been “democratized” through a process in which locally elected Community Development Councils prioritized projects and applied to receive funding for their implementation. “The program success was evident in its very positive impact in over 35, 000 communities which included greater access to public services and then overall acceptance of the democratic process and the people-centered approaches.”

Ambassador Raz said that the Citizens’ Charter program deepened the relationship between the government and its citizens and expanded the responsibility of the Community Development Councils through an inter-ministerial collaboration for better citizen-centric delivery of services, including universal access to clean drinking water, quality education, health services and infrastructure. “This has translated into 12,800 completed projects and more than 13 million people benefited. This model, of course, originated from collaboration between the international and the national. And as a government, we found ourselves in the middle of this partnership, and we adopted it and held it with two hands.”

She pointed out that the government had also taken a community-led approach to the SDGs. “The government has worked to nationalize the SDGs by identifying the most relevant targets and indicators to develop the Afghanistan Sustainable Development Goals. Of course in Afghanistan, when we are talking about community-led efforts, we cannot discuss this without the element of peace. The government has also emphasized that Afghans from all segments of society should have a say in the peace process. It called a Loya Jirga, our format for our grand assembly, with 3,200 delegates from all 34 provinces that prioritized our objective for peace and the formation of an inclusive negotiating team. Following the lead of the Jirga, the government in August took the very difficult decision to release 400 remaining Taliban prisoners as part of the commitment from the government’s side to start the peace talks.

“The government is also empowering women to engage in track two and track three peace processes through community-led initiatives. The second phase of our Women, Peace, and Security National Action Plan emphasizes the localization of the plan and close consultation with stakeholders around the country. This has led to the development of local action plans which has strengthened community leadership and further amplified local ownership of the National Action Plan I think this is the environment we should strive for with these important initiatives and building more people-centric governments and processes and initiatives that leads to greater ownership of the local communities.”

Her fellow Afghan, Rasoul Rasouli, CDD Operations and Development Expert and former Director General, Citizens’ Charter, Afghanistan, said the overall national project aimed at putting in place sustainable systems to reduce poverty and bind people to the government. It was now in its first phase, he said, and on a path to reach 40,000 villages in the country. “Community-driven development programs encourage the notion of participation and voluntary reason. It is quite feasible to expand the program fast and give more coverage. The bottom-up development gives a way for citizens through the different platforms of community participation, to participate in monitoring, social audit, score cards, and a comprehensive grievance redress mechanism linking the beneficiaries at the primary level to the government officials from the local all the way up to the national level to register their complaints.”

The Fambul Tok project in Sierra Leone shared a similar goal of community involvement with the Afghan Citizens’ Charter movement but proceeded on a different mindset, said John Caulker, Executive Director of Fambul Tok International, ”We don’t’ say ‘bottom up,’ we say ‘inside out’ because with all due respect, we believe that people should not be seen as the bottom. People have their answers to the problems, solutions to look out for, and that is the key. We don’t go to communities to solve their problems, we go to communities to facilitate a conversation.”

He explained that the Creole language phrase Fambul Tok means “family talks” and evolved in Sierra Leone in the aftermath of the country’s devastating and divisive civil war. “So the initial concept was to address gaps to work on reconciliation, get the people who suffered during the conflict to sit around to talk about what went wrong. ‘We used to be one big family. Your mother is my mother, and your father is my father, your child is my child. It takes a village to raise a child. What went wrong?’ So that was the initial idea, why we had Fambul Tok, and as the name implies, it’s a national conversation.”

When the Ebola crisis hit five years ago, Sierra Leone profited from this earlier experience with community-centered development. “We realized that it’s important to have a trusted relationship, which we had already forged, and because of that trusted relationship, we were able to lead a conversation at the community level. We were able to get stakeholders to listen to communities.”

Libby Hoffman, President of Catalyst for Peace, spoke of working with Mr. Caulker in Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak and a lesson she gleaned from that experience. She recalled that Mr. Caulker was frustrated by the response of the international community which he found replicative of the errors in the outside world’s response to the country’s post-civil war needs years earlier. “He said something that I found so inspiring that I wrote it down, and it’s become a keystone for me. Referring to international donors, he said, ‘They think they can just come in and pour resources at the problem to fix it. They don’t even see the community where the problem is happening.’ And that community is like a bowl, and it’s cracked. And if you pour water into a cracked bowl, it just goes right through, and if you keep pouring, it only makes the cracks bigger.”

Continuing her bowl metaphor, she said the way that Fambul Tok worked was “not about pouring water into the cup of the community, it was about repairing the cup through a community mobilization and engagement process so that it could hold the water itself and then it could generate its own activity and lead in its own reconciliation and development.” Holding up a model of concentric bowls to illustrate her point, she said, “You’ll see that there is no up or down. Depending on where you’re located, it’s a whole system, and the role of each level outside is to create the space that allows the resources in the level inside to be seen, motivated, and magnified. So this is what we mean when we say communities in the center, not separated and hierarchal but all together with distinct roles and responsibilities as part of a larger whole.”

Clare Lockhart, Director, Institute for State Effectiveness, said that the kinds of layered platform designs being discussed varied from place to place and had to be context-specific. “But one of the most important principles that we’ve heard today is that among the decisions, rights or responsibilities, the leadership for planning is vested in the community. And this can sometimes be quite hard for governments or NGOs to let go of when they got used to making the decisions. But it’s really important that shift about understanding that the community will be making the decision and plans for what happens in their community.”

On the crucial issue of financial support, she said that a “single window framework” was key to engaging donors. “From the perspective of donors with these often fragmented programs, having a single set of rules for operation and community development can be so crucial.”

Jimena Leiva-Roesch moderated the discussion.