Presentation by Donald Steinberg, Deputy Administrator, at the Tokyo Conference on Afghanistan, Commission on Civil Society Organizations

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Distinguished Guests:

It is a great honor to address this session of the Tokyo Conference on Afghanistan session on the role of civil society organizations in the process of building peace and establishing security, safety and socio-economic advancement to Afghanistan.  Today, we draw together women and men from Afghan civil society, including participants from all regions, all ethnic groups, and all walks of life.  No session here in Tokyo is more important.

Ten years ago, I took part in the first Tokyo conference on Afghanistan on behalf of the United States Government.  In many ways, I have a strong sense of deja vu.  In January 2002, in the wake of the fall of the Taliban, the world came together to pledge our mutual commitment to support the stability and reconstruction of a fragile and devastated Afghanistan.  Working together as a community in support of the Afghan people and government, we have kept faith over the past decade.  This fact is reflected in a 15 year increase in life expectancy for the Afghan people; the presence of some seven million students – of which nearly 40 percent are girls -- in schools; a huge decline in infant and maternal mortality; and a three-fold increase in per capita income. 

These are more than mere statistics: they represent a fundamental shift in the standard of living for the Afghan people and document the benefits of growing stability and the promise of even greater advancement in the future.  As a global community, we are in Tokyo this week to reaffirm our commitment to Afghanistan, and my government will continue to be the largest bilateral contributor.

But there is one fundamental and hopeful difference between the Tokyo Conference on Afghanistan a decade ago and the session this week.  In 2002, the participants huddled around negotiating tables were primarily from governments, international financial institutions, UN agencies, and foreign NGOs.  The deals we arrived at and the strategies we formulated then were significant, but they suffered greatly from the absence of Afghan civil society. 

So, too, did the early implementation of our programs.  Too frequently, our efforts to expand health care, promote rural development, support education, build infrastructure and strengthen governance were met with confusion, bewilderment and even resistance from those who were supposed to benefit from them  -- in large part because we had not engaged the Afghan people adequately in the programs' design.  As a result, our work was often less than fully effective.   Over the past decade, we have re-learned a fundamental truth:  no government, assistance agency, private company, or civil society group has a monopoly on financial resources, ground truth, good ideas, or moral authority.  We are at our best when we work together as partners.

This gathering is an exciting reflection of this recognition.  The events organized in Tokyo by the Afghan Civil Society Joint Working Group have been among the best attended and most informative activities of the week.  Indeed, while most of the press attention has been focused on the discussions taking place on the Joint Declaration and the Mutual Accountability Framework, what is occurring here among Afghan civil society activists at the UN University is not a side event: it is the main event. 

The 30 official representatives from Afghan civil society, headed by Hayatullah Hayat of the Organization for Social Development and Human Rights, and Samira Hamidi from the Afghan Women's Network, were chosen by 250 civil society representatives who came together at a national conference in Kabul in late May.  Your contributions over the past month have already fundamentally re-shaped the outcome of this conference and the substance of conversations in the so-called corridors of powers.  Indeed, the Civil Society Joint Working Group has helped ensure that areas of greatest importance to the Afghan people are included in the accountability framework -- including issues related to effective governance, an end to corruption, free and fair elections, efficient and responsive budgeting, and gender equality and women's empowerment .

This is remarkable.  It is true, as Finance Minister Zakhiwal noted earlier, that Afghanistan has a proud historical tradition of active civil society organizations.  But it is also true that three decades of conflict eviscerated and eroded most of the organizations, including institutions that drew together women, youths, ethnic groups, labor unions, academics, journalists, disabled people, and displaced populations.  The rebirth of these groups and their growing influence in Afghanistan is one of the most hopeful developments over the past decade.

The United States government -- including my agency, the U.S. Agency for International Development -- has helped promote this growth.  We have pressed for governance focused on representation, legitimacy and trust between Afghan government institutions and the Afghan people through technical assistance, capacity building, direct grants to NGOs and advocacy for civil society space. 

Our support has come through such programs as the three-year, $45 million “Initiative to Promote Afghan Civil Society,” designed to enable Afghan citizens to effectively participate in political processes, solve community problems, and advocate and mobilize collectively to demand good governance from their leaders.   We have also highlighted women's empowerment, including through the $39 million “Ambassador's Small Grants Program to Support Gender Equality,” and media development through the $22 million” Media Development and Empowerment Program.”

As Afghan civil society looks ahead to its essential role in monitoring the commitments made by the Afghan government and the international donors over the past week in the areas of democracy, human rights, gender equality and women's empowerment, justice, governance and financial management, the United States again stands ready to help.  One model is the on-going support we provide to Afghan NGOs to use the Citizen Report Card to evaluate the transparency and impact of government investments and spending, and the Civil Society Budget Watcher working group, which is identifying strategies for promoting public oversight on budgets.  Similarly, we have supported the Women's Advocacy Coalition, a group of 20 organizations that are promoting public education, advocacy and monitoring on the National Action Plan for Women in Afghanistan.

The United States is ready to support Afghan groups in its watchdog role in other areas of the Mutual Accountability Framework as well.  USAID Mission Director Ken Yamashita is organizing a roundtable with civil society groups interested in such assistance, to be held in later this month in Kabul.

Thank you again for the opportunity to address this important session, and for the opportunity to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Afghan people as you stand up for a better future for all.  

Tokyo Conference on Afghanistan Commission on Civil Society Organizations

Last updated: February 12, 2014

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