The girls’ high school under construction in Jabal Seraj could have turned out like any other development project in the area: crumbling and dangerous. Afghanistan is littered with poor-quality buildings sponsored by foreign donors. The projects are often sub-contracted -- several times -- to a final implementer who maximizes profits using cheap labor and sub-standard materials.But not the Girls’ High School of Jabal Seraj. This community in Parwan province, north of Kabul, succeeded in getting the building contractor to replace approximately 10,000 sub-standard bricks and double the thickness of the metal sheeting on the roof.Though sub-standard construction and corruption are endemic to many developing countries, in Afghanistan accountability is almost impossible to establish. Eighty-percent of donor money flows outside the government. Donors are responsible to taxpayers in their home countries and not to their Afghan beneficiaries. Project implementers are accountable to the donors and not to communities. The beneficiaries have few means of pressuring for improvements, and this has meant few checks on the rampant corruption that, literally, eats away at the entrails of projects. Most donors lack efficient monitoring resources to ensure effective project implementation.In an effort to empower local communities and help them to receive the promised aid, Integrity Watch Afghanistan (IWA), a non-governmental organization, initiated a local monitoring project in 2007.The organization approaches a community to explain the concept, says Pajhwok Ghori, in charge of community-based monitoring at IWA. “The community chooses honest [local] people they trust,” he says. Then, in a workshop, these monitors learn how to determine if a project is being implemented according to the designated specifications, and, if not, how to approach the donor. “The local community then selects which particular project is important to them and needs monitoring.”IWA provides technical help -- for example, engineering experts -- but no salaries, says Lorenzo Delesgues, the co-director of IWA. “This is to ensure that the monitoring process can be sustainable” even without IWA.In Jabal Seraj, most of the monitors are schoolteachers, thus ensuring respect. “Often the engineers or the construction company pocket the money and carry out bad construction,” says Mohammed Maroof, a local monitor. “Look at the [nearby] Ishkabad School, for example. That, too, was a girls’ school. The wall cracked and broke after barely a year. The girls still have to use that school.”“This monitoring project has really helped the people,” says Abdul Matin, another project monitor. “Can you imagine what kind of a school would have been constructed here without our intervention? The bricks they were using initially were crumbly; the walls would not have been sturdy. It is difficult sometimes to ask questions and some project implementers do not like the questions. But eventually they have to give the answers.”The IWA program has an escalating scale of accountability. If the monitors cannot affect change where needed, the community gets involved. If the implementer still does not respond, the community puts pressure on the next link up the chain and so on all the way to the donor.Some donors have been responsive. Captain A. Heather Coyne, a United States Army reservist who is the NGO/international organizations liaison with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Training Mission Afghanistan (NTMA), has worked with the IWA monitoring project to see how community monitoring can be expanded to NATO-financed police training projects. Her idea is not just to ensure better quality construction, but to use the monitoring method to build a stronger relationship between the police and the local communities.“We are going to be providing access to IWA for all of our police station construction, so that communities can build confidence [in] police issues, and so that police can see that the community may be an asset to them. We're hoping that communities will use the monitoring process as a way to build more constructive relationships with their police force, as well as making police more accountable and responsive,” Coyne says.IWA itself has expanded the monitoring from its pilot project in Parwan and has similar projects in Balkh, Nangarhar and Herat provinces. Initially, one of the toughest hurdles was to make communities understand that IWA was not yet another cash-rich NGO handing out goodies.“We had to tell people, ‘We are not here to pay you; we are not here to build the project,’” says Ghori. “In the beginning, people were skeptical and were not sure they could bring change, but now they are hopeful and more communities are coming and asking for this training. What we want is not just a social audit but social change.”The monitors’ liaison in Jabal Seraj, IWA employee Haji Ghulam Rasool Khan Gulbahari, says defeating corruption must start at a local level. “We may not be able to stop the corruption at the highest levels by what we do. But even if we cannot end 100 percent of corruption, we can still stop 80 percent. We cannot reach the Arg [the presidential palace], but we can stop the corruption that is happening here in our area.”
Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul.