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iconCIVIL SOCIETY ROLE Updated March 30, 2009

Section Contents:  Overview Of Non-Governmental Programs | Relationships between NGOs and the "Peace Operation" | NGO Work in Afghanistan | NGO Coordination and Networks | NGO Code of Conduct | Major Issues for NGOs in Afghanistan | Other Resources on NGOs in Afghanistan | Backgrounder on NGOs


Overview Of Non-Governmental Programs

Non-governmental organizations, both international and indigenous, are major actors in providing relief, reconstruction, development and peacebuilding assistance in Afghanistan.  Some have been assisting Afghanistan and Afghan refugees in neighbouring countries for decades, while many more have begun programmes since the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001.

Relationships between NGOs and the "Peace Operation"

The numerous NGOs working in the field are not components of the Peace Operation, which in Afghanistan refers to the 3 main international missions - the Coalition Forces, ISAF, and UNAMA. NGOs routinely coordinate their activities with other international and national actors in the field in order to share information about programs, to avoid duplication and waste, and to pool security information to best protect the safety of aid workers and beneficiaries. However, NGOs are independent and operate in accordance with guidelines set by their own organizations, and the extent of cooperation with other organizations can vary. Some insist on their political neutrality and operational independence and actively resist 'being coordinated' by either their home governments or international organizations.

NGO Work in Afghanistan

A wide range of NGOs currently provide assistance in Afghanistan. Some are non-denominational while others are faith based. The majority of NGOs are Afghan, but the largest programs are implemented by established international relief and development NGOs. The main sectors of NGO programming are health care, emergency relief, school reconstruction and educational programming, community development, capacity building programs, and agricultural development efforts. Some NGOs are active in governance programs, mine action, peacebuilding, and elements of security sector reform as well.

The number of NGOs in Afghanistan is currently unclear. With the enactment of a new Law on Non-Governmental Organizations, the Afghan government has undertaken a re-registration of NGOs. Of the estimated 2,400 national and international NGOs as of May 2005, 700 are now in the process of reregistering with the Ministry of the Economy. The re-registration has been undertaken by the Afghan government to better discriminate between legitimate NGOs and private sector contractors for internationally funded projects. The government's previous weak NGO legislation had in fact defined NGOs as part of the private sector, and NGOs have argued that since many private companies call themselves NGOs, popular anger with the slow pace of reconstruction has unfairly blamed the NGO sector.

A sample of the variety of international and national NGOs currently working in Afghanistan best illustrates the nature of NGO activities.


ActionAid has worked in Afghanistan since 2002.  Its current work focuses on education, governance, food rights, HIV and Aids, peacebuilding and women's rights.  Its strategies revolve around grass roots community mobilization and local capacity building, research and with networking and international advocacy.  ActionAid participates in the National Solidarity Programme and the National Emergency Employment Programme.


Established in 1983 in the U.K, Afghanaid currently works in 4 provinces of Afghanistan with over 500,000 adults and children.  It employs 450 mostly Afghan staff, and its work focuses on sustainable rural development strategies, including community development, vocation training, mother and child health projects, microfinance, infrastructure rehabilitation.

Afghan Development Association
Established in 1990, ADA is an Afghan-managed NGO implementing reconstruction and development programmes in Afghanistan, focusing on agriculture, construction, and education and training programs.  It currently works in 52 districts inside Afghanistan, and ADA employs about 450 Afghans.

Afghanistan Relief Organization
ARO is a purely volunteer organization based in the U.S. that has worked in Afghanistan since 1998.  It delivers relief (food, medicine, hygiene supplies, school supplies and winter blankets and clothing) directly to the needy.  It also offers general education programs designed to encourage self sufficiency at the ARO Technology Education Center (TEC) in Kabul, where it employs Afghan staff.

Afghan Red Crescent Society
A national NGO established in 1934, the Afghan Red Crescent is fully financially dependent on International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) and the ICRC for core structure and activities.  It has active branches in 31 out of the 32 provinces of Afghanistan, 1200 staff members and 10,000 volunteers throughout the country, supported by approximately 20 international delegates from the IFRC.  Its programs focus on disaster response preparedness and basic and mother-child health care.

Agha Khan Development Network (AKDN)
Active in Afghanistan since 1995 providing emergency relief, AKDN's programs now encompass large scale rural development, health, education and civil society programmes, the provision of a range of microfinance services, the safeguarding of historic landscapes and neighbourhoods in Kabul and Heart, a mobile phone network, and the renovation of a 5 star hotel in Kabul.

Care International
Care has worked in Afghanistan since 1961. It has 900 staff members (99% of them Afghan), and works in the central, southern and south-eastern regions with focus on education, water and sanitation, food to war widows, income generation and skills training for vulnerable groups and demobilized soldiers.

Danish Committee for Aid to Afghan Refugees (DACAAR)
Since 1984, DACAAR has worked towards sustainable livelihoods for rural Afghans, including support to refugees and returnees, with a focus on rural development initiatives and water and sanitation projects.  Its work covers 25 out of the 34 provinces in Afghanistan.  It employs 950 Afghans and 20-25 foreign development workers and consultants.

International Rescue Committee (IRC)
The IRC has worked since 1980 aiding Afghans, and currently supports major programs in protection, reintegration of returnees and emergency infrastructure support (shelter/water and sanitation), vocational training, education, child protection, health, security, capacity building and community development.

Islamic Relief Worldwide
Islamic Relief (IR) has worked in Afghanistan since 1992, responding to natural disasters, emergencies, and running development projects such as water, sanitation, and micro-credit schemes.  Current activities include work in: Food security, including partnership projects with UN WFP; Drought Alleviation; Health; Education; Water & Sanitation; Sustainable Livelihoods; and building basic community infrastructure such as a health clinic outside Kabul to serve 40,000 people, and income generation projects such as the Kandahar women's bakery and programs for street children in Kabul.

International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
ICRC has been present in Afghanistan since 1986 and employs 1200 staff, including 61 expatriates.  Its priority is to protect the welfare of detainees, but ICRC also runs assistance programmes focussing on health care, water and sanitation, support to mine victims, and teaching international humanitarian law for Afghan security forces.

NGO Coordination and Networks

NGOs with common interests and areas of operation in Afghanistan have made serious efforts to coordinate amongst themselves, to maximize their efficiency and resources, to better ensure the security of their staff and partners, to advocate on humanitarian and development issues with the government and international agencies.  Such coordination has been undertaken by several NGO networks:

The Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR)
ACBAR is the most active Afghanistan-based coordinating agency, with 95 international and national NGO members. It is funded by the European Commission and European development agencies and provides an array of services. It compiles an NGO directory, with basic information on 298 Afghan and 182 International NGOs. It runs an NGO Security Office which liaises with the military and government and provides regular updates to the NGO community. It also provides briefings, networking and advocacy on key issues with the government and the international community.

In addition, ACBAR runs a civil society forum (CS-ANDS) to provide input to the Afghan government's development strategy.  Member NGOs are unified on major issues like security, NGO image, and laws and regulations and ACBAR is working on a communications strategy to address the growing animosity towards NGOs in the country. ACBAR has four offices: Kabul, Jalalabad, Heart, and Mazar-i-Sharif.

Afghan NGOs Coordination Bureau (ANCB)
ANCB is a coordination body for Afghan NGOs in existence since 1991. It currently lists 104 member NGOs and provides a range of coordination and capacity building services and trainings to Afghan NGOs.

British Agencies Afghanistan Group (BAAG)
BAAG has been operating since 1987 as an umbrella group to draw public attention to the humanitarian needs of the population of Afghanistan and of Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan.  Its members comprise 27 major U.K. and Irish aid agencies operating in or supporting projects in Afghanistan. BAAG provides regular information on the political, economic and security situation in Afghanistan and is an effective network for international NGOs operating in Afghanistan.

NGO Code of Conduct

In May 2005, 90 national and international NGOs launched a Code of Conduct for NGOs engaged in Humanitarian and Reconstruction Activities in Afghanistan to regulate their activities, following high profile accusations that NGOs had misused international funds given for Afghan reconstruction. The 21-article code sets high standards to ensure greater transparency and accountability, as well as to improve the quality of services provided by NGOs.  At the launch, UN Secretary General's Special Representative issued a statement calling the Code of Conduct a better framework for reconstruction in which the respective roles of NGOs, the government and the private sector are clearly defined, monitored and regulated.

Major Issues for NGOs in Afghanistan

NGO Insecurity

Afghanistan has become the most dangerous country in the world for aid agencies. The Global Civil Society yearbook shows that "terrorist incidents" targeting NGOs have gone up 1300% from the early1990s to 2005.

While the average number of violent deaths among aid workers was 2.6 annually from the period 1997 to September 2001, in 2003 there were 12 fatalities, doubling to 24 fatalities in 2004, and jumping again to 31 killed in 2005 - the majority of victims Afghan national staff. Fatalities for 2006 are likely to rise higher still. In April 2006, five medical staff of the NGO, Rural Rehabilitation Association for Afghanistan (RRAA) were killed. In May 2006 alone, there were 10 killings across the country - 2 UNICEF staff and 4 ActionAid staff were shot in their vehicles in separate incidents, and 4 healthworkers from the group Afghan Health Development Services were killed when their vehicle was hit by a remote controlled explosive device.

Violent Deaths among National and International Aid Workers in Afghanistan,
Data from the reports of the Afghan NGO Safety Office
(includes both NGO and ICRC staff, national and international)

Attacks on aid workers have also become more geographically widespread. While killings used to be focused in the south and southeast, where the Taliban remnants remain strongest, since 2004 attacks happen equally in the north and west as well.

The targeting of aid agencies has led to a situation where some NGOs cease operations altogether, while others must curtail programs. The cost, beyond the tragic loss of lives of aid workers, is major disruptions in assistance and implementation of urgently needed projects that affect millions of Afghans, which could fuel civil unrest as popular anger mounts at the lack of visible reconstruction results and regional disparities in aid.

In a survey of 52 NGOs across Afghanistan conducted jointly by ANSO and CARE in 2005, fully 30% reported an attack on a staff member in the last year, and almost half (44%) reported that the security situation had led them to curtail or modify planned projects, with 35 % reported that the deteriorating security had led to them operating in fewer districts.

NGO-Military Tensions

Many aid groups believe that the main reason for the deliberate targeting of aid workers is a dangerous "blurring of the lines" between aid workers and foreign military forces, given the heavy involvement of the military in humanitarian and relief work through "hearts and minds" projects and the Provincial Reconstruction Teams model.

They point to the fact that the US military has openly said it can 'use' humanitarian actors as 'force extenders' for its own ends, and that spokespersons for the Coalition have said repeatedly that the military and NGOs 'share the same goals'. They point to numerous incidents where Coalition soldiers engaged in reconstruction activities have operated in plainclothes and drive in the same unmarked vehicles that NGOs use.

In the most high profile NGO pull-out, Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF) ceased all operations in Afghanistan after 24 years of providing health care to Afghans, when five of its staff were shot and killed in June 2004. In explaining its decision, MSF cited the targeted killing of its staff, the government's failure to arrest the local commanders who were the suspected perpetrators, and the assertion made by Taliban representatives after the killings that organizations like MSF work for US interests and were therefore targets for future attacks.  MSF had publicly and repeatedly denounced the consistent efforts by the US-led coalition to use humanitarian aid to build support for its military and political aims.  Furthermore, in May 2004, MSF publicly condemned the coalition's decision to distribute leaflets in southern Afghanistan that conditioned the continued delivery of aid on local people's willingness to provide information about the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
(for more see

Many NGOs worry that such military tactics have compromised public perceptions of humanitarian assistance as politically neutral. Some NGOs believe that neutrality is critical to ensure the security of aid workers and their access to needy populations on all sides of a conflict. In Afghanistan, many NGOs fear such military tactics lead the population to see NGOs as part of the foreign military presence. One researcher found that U.S. military personnel interviewed held similar views - they believed that Afghans see no separation between the military and foreign NGOs.

Not all NGOs share this view however, and in a 2005 survey of 52 NGOs, only a small number pointed to such 'blurring of the lines', while more saw deteriorating security as a result of increased criminal activity, resistance to poppy eradication efforts, increased activity by armed groups during the elections, and a worsening public perception of NGOs. In a May 2006 Report on military-NGO relations, Dutch NGO Cordaid stated that “Attacks on Aid Agencies are, however, primarily a result of the general context, rather than of the blurring of lines between aid workers and the military.”

NGO Concerns with Provincial Reconstruction Teams

The Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) model of combined military and civilian teams for reconstruction is a focal point for such NGO concerns. Because the politically motivated PRTs undertake many of the same reconstruction activities as NGOs, NGO programs in the same areas can potentially be perceived as political. In a recent example, local partners of the International NGO CARE in one region were reportedly "...approached by the Taliban and told that as long as they continued to operate in the same way, they would not be targeted. But if they accepted funding from the military-led "provincial reconstruction team" (PRTs) their security might be threatened."

Reflecting the diversity of the NGOs active in Afghanistan, NGO views on PRTs run the spectrum from blanket refusal to engage with the military to what some see as "principled pragmatism" on the other - that is that NGOs should engage with the PRTs in order to minimize negative impacts on their work.

NGO concerns about the PRT model are frequently voiced as the need to protect humanitarian space, that is, the principle that civilians in war should receive humanitarian assistance as a right, not only when it helps further political goals as a tool of a larger stabilization strategy. In Afghanistan, foreign militaries provide relief and reconstruction assistance to civilians largely for instrumental reasons - force protection, enabling intelligence gathering, and helping ease acceptance of foreign military forces.

Frequently policy makers and the military have dismissed such NGO concerns as motivated by 'turf wars', but the position of NGO networks such as ACBAR and independent NGO advocacy has been highly consistent. Some NGO concerns have been partially addressed and PRTs now exist in a variety of working models. So far the American model of the PRT has focused a lot on joint military civilian actions (MCAs) and personnel have, in the past, operated out of uniform in unmarked vehicles. The UK PRTs, established in 2003 in the northern cities of Mazãr-e-Sharif and Meymaneh, unlike their American counterparts, split their civil and military tasks, with the military focusing on demobilization, police-training and other security sector projects, and the civilian elements of the PRT focusing on reconstruction.  The PRT model fielded by the UK was the result of a series of consultations between the British government and U.K. NGOs- and it has received praise from NGO personnel.  UNAMA, with some NGO support, lobbied for the British model to be universal for all PRTs in 2003, and was partially successful in securing a shift toward focusing on security sector reform in ISAF-led PRTs.  The U.S.-led PRTS, now under ISAF command, as well as other ISAF PRTs, have continued to implement military-civilian quick impact projects as a key part of the counter-insurgency strategy.

NGO Civil-Military Working Group

In 2004, a Civil Military working group was established by UNAMA with the purpose of resolving operational issues and to provide a channel for NGO concerns and perspectives to the military, the Afghan government and foreign donors.  UNAMA has been the main coordination point between the PRTs and NGOs, while another point of contact has been through the NGO network ACBAR, or more specifically the Afghan NGO Security Office (ANSO).  In addition, some NGOs have contacts directly with PRTs in their areas.  While PRTs at the local and national level feel they have good contacts with NGOs, this is not always the view of the NGOs.  There is a sense of unease about working with the PRTs, especially among Afghans who worry about being seen as cooperating with what some see as a foreign occupation force.

NGOs have also raised other concerns - that the PRTs do not have the capacity or terms of operation to provide real security for the population, that aid projects undertaken by the military have shown to be neither cost-effective, nor sustainable, yet can displace other aid efforts, and that scarce government development funding is channelled to the military for these purposes.  For example, in Afghanistan's Badghis province, one of CARE's local partners had started up a micro-loan business with interest rates of around 10 percent, as part of a long-term community project.  The PRT came in and set up a short-term loans project with no fee, which brought people flocking to what CARE sees as a less sustainable option.

For more on NGO positions on PRTs, see ACBAR presentation:

Negative Views of NGOs

NGOs have become targets of public anger at the overall slow pace of the reconstruction effort so far, in the face of raised expectations by the Afghan population.  Afghans believe little has been done to date, despite the billions of dollars of international funds pledged. Afghan government figures have publicly accused aid agencies of hindering the growth of local firms and squandering billions of US dollars earmarked for reconstruction efforts.  Asraf Ghani, Afghan Finance Minister from 2002-2004, has been highly critical of the funds devoted to aid organizations in Afghanistan. Mr. Ghani claimed that the Afghan government, if given the funds, could provide similar services for a fraction of the cost and that capable Afghans were being lured away from government positions by lucrative salaries offered by foreign aid agencies.

NGOs in Afghanistan are concerned about these negative perceptions and the NGO network ACBAR has adopted a communications strategy to counter these charges.  As well, the 2005 NGO Code of Conduct, mentioned above, was a direct product of efforts by leading NGOs to respond to these attitudes.  But public anger at NGOs has seen the offices of NGOs attacked, and many fear it is partly behind the rise in targeted attacks against aid workers.

NGOs responded in 2004 with ACBAR asserting that NGOs are not the reason for the current wage inflation, and demonstrating that NGOs were losing staff at increasing rates, with UN and donors offering higher salaries.  Aid workers say the government is confusing them with highly paid private contractors and profitable organisations, many of which are registered as NGOs with the Ministry of Economy.  Prior to the new NGO law and re-registration, most of the 2400 NGOs registered with the Afghan government were in fact contractors.  In enacting the new law, the Government agreed there is a need to differentiate between NGOs and the private sector and through the re-registration process, many of these "fake" NGOs are expected to be weeded out.

Furthermore, in trying to untangle responsibility for the poor results to date, ACBAR pointed to a report from the Afghan Ministry of Finance showing that out of US $13.4 billion pledged between 2002 and 2004, only $3.9 billion had been physically disbursed to the country by mid-2005. The same report indicates that only 9% of donor funding was given directly to NGOs, with 45.5 % going directly to the United Nations, nearly 30 % to the government, and 16 % to private contractors.  ACBAR is trying to find out from the government and UN how much funding they have given to NGOs to implement their projects."

Other Resources on NGOs in Afghanistan

"NGO Insecurity in Afghanistan", CARE and Afghan NGO Safety Office, 2005.

"Provincial Reconstruction Teams and Humanitarian-Military Relations in Afghanistan." Save the Children (2004), Gerard McHugh and Lola Gostelow.

"Report: NGO/Government Dialogue on Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in Afghanistan and the Militarization of Humanitarian Assistance", Peace Operations Working Group, Canadian Peacebuilding Coordinating Committee, 2003.

"Civil Military Relations in Reference to Afghanistan", December 2, 2004. Japan NGOs in Afghanistan Network.

Afghanistan: Peacebuilding in a Regional Perspective - NGOs

Afghan Reconstruction Page, Development Gateway.
(online community of aid professionals in Afghanistan).

NGO Project, Global Policy Forum.

BOND, British Overseas NGOs for Development.

Provincial Reconstruction Teams and Military Relations with International and Non- governmental Organizations in Afghanistan, U.S. Institute of Peace, Special Report 147, September 2005.

Robert M. Perrito, “The U.S. Experience with Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan, Lessons Identified.” U.S. Institute of Peace, Special Report No. 152, October 2005.

Georg Frerks et. Al., “Principles and Pragmatism: Civil-Military Action in Afghanistan and Liberia.” (University of Utrecht, May 2006)

Backgrounder on NGOs

What are NGOs and CSOs?

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs), are independent citizen's organizations established on a non-profit basis to work on social issues. They exist in almost every country in the world and mostly address domestic issues, though some percentage are internationally oriented and work on issues of humanitarian assistance, development and peacebuilding outside of their home countries. Those groups that work across national borders are known as international NGOs. NGOs work in a variety of ways: through advocacy campaigns that aim to influence policy, such as the international campaign to ban land mines (ICBL) or the campaign for the International Criminal Court, through an advocacy role at the United Nations and other international institutions, and through direct work in areas of conflict "in the field" providing humanitarian relief and development assistance, and also supporting peace and reconciliation efforts, in countries around the world.

Some of the biggest and most well known in the relief and development field are the International Committee of the Red Cross, Medicines Sans Frontieres, CARE International, Oxfam, Save the Children, International Rescue Committee, World Vision, and Catholic Relief Services.

According to the NGO project of the Global Policy Forum, international NGOs who work in the field face many challenges:

  • governments or rebel groups deny them access to those in need
  • corrupt officials or warlords demand payoffs
  • local violence threatens the safety and even the lives of field personnel
  • government, corporate and private donors can subject NGOs to political pressure, diminishing their neutrality.
  • Military forces increasingly distribute humanitarian assistance to civilians in countries they occupy, blurring the traditional military/humanitarian distinction and making civilian humanitarian workers targets for resistance fighters.
  • the new doctrine of "humanitarian intervention" (which provides a humanitarian rationale for armed conflict), further erodes humanitarian neutrality and blurs the longtime distinction between humanitarian action and the anti-humanitarian nature of warfare and organized violence

NGO Funding

NGOs rely on funding from individual donors, foundations, corporations and governments. As NGOs have proved their effectiveness in delivering programs in the field in the 1990s, they have increasingly received funding from governments of major donor countries, usually through the state development agencies, or from United Nations agencies. Presently, governments of the world's wealthiest countries provide a large percentage of the funding for major international NGOs. Some critics charge that receiving funds from governments that have political agendas in a given country, or corporations or foundations with vested interests compromises the independence and neutrality of NGO work. Many NGOs respond that even when their programs rely on government funds, they are not simply arms of these donors, but negotiate programs that are consistent with their own values and operating principles.


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