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Local Government in Afghanistan: Creating a Legacy of Public Service

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Lisa Saye
September 28, 2019

Afghanistan at Work, Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo by Lisa Saye @2019

Sometimes it can take years, even decades, for a peaceful, stable government to emerge. Witness the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, the final in a series of peace treaties that ended the Thirty Years’ War between the Holy Roman Empire and Central Europe. Thirty years is more than just the obvious three decades in terms of time. Thirty years is a generation and for the millions of unfortunate people impacted by this particular war, thirty years probably seemed like an intolerable eternity. For a current and modern equivalent, one need look no further than Afghanistan—a forty year series of war, civil war and then war again.

For any area, region or country dismantled by an absence of security as a result of steady discord of conflict, local government becomes more and more prevalent in meeting the needs of the people. Attend any university lecture extolling the virtues of local government and you will consistently hear how local government represents the quickest way to test the efficiency of delivering a public good. This virtue is never more tested than in a conflict zone where there seems to be no end in sight and where the local government apparatus organizes to parcel out medicines, food, clean water and justice.

In war zones, local government becomes a daily case study of how government attempts to operate when revenues and security are nonexistent. The normal bureaucratic mechanism for policy creation and policy dissemination is abandoned and the daily work of public administrators revolves around short-term donor-funded programs that feed, clothe or offer temporary housing to war-weary citizens. Public administrators that work under these conditions represent the highest form of bravery and public service. But, these public servants are more than brave. They set up clinics and hospitals in abandoned structures and organize schools where students have classes beneath weak plastic tents, simply because it must be done. They do remarkable work and are not afraid to go to the truest spot in their hearts and serve equally each citizen that they encounter.

On September 22, 2019, I facilitated a session on building a framework for peace at the Peace Summit, jointly sponsored by the United States Institute of Peace and the American University Afghanistan in Kabul. I drew inspiration from a number of presentations, including an emotional reflection from my colleague from South Africa. His story centered on living through and surviving the ills of apartheid and notably the degree to which local government ceased to exist under it. His retelling of the ugliest parts of apartheid reminded everyone at the Peace Summit how important local administrative structures are and how important those structures should be in the delivery of public services.

While most public administrators may never work in conditions of war or conflict, elements of the remoteness of assistance are shared by public servants around the world.  All of us know local government as the entity that addresses immediate needs, responds to immediate emergencies and mobilizes employees and equipment—be the area paved and green or crumbling from war and neglect. Imagine the hopelessness a citizen feels having to live in a refugee camp in the very country where they were born. Imagine him or her not able to plan their day, let alone their future. The same can be said for citizens living in a homeless shelter in the very city where they were born. In either of the aforementioned cases, each citizen encounters some form of local government during their stay, but citizens in a conflict area are extremely less likely to receive the appropriate amount of sustained aid. In those encounters, local public servants may not only fill the void of established, formal government, but many times they are filling in a spot that never existed.  

Afghanistan has a number of challenges facing it as it moves toward peace. Afghan local government recognizes these challenges and works to meet the unique needs of a population with issues as expansive as its geographical terrain. Discussions among public leaders, students and civil society highlight the need for a strong local government apparatus where public service is personal, expected and transferable. Public servants in Afghanistan know that they cannot stop a tidal wave with a broom, but more importantly, they understand the need to deliver on deeply held principles of service in any environment where their citizens need them. For those remarkable public servants having little to no local government administrative precedent or legacy is merely an opportunity for them to create one.

The copyrighted ‘Afghanistan at Work’ image was taken by Lisa Saye in Kabul, Afghanistan.


Author: Lisa Saye is Chair of the Division of Social Sciences and Humanities and Associate Professor of Public Administration at American University of Afghanistan in Kabul. On July 9, 2019, Dr. Saye delivered the Pre-Departure Orientation Keynote Address at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois for Fulbrighters leaving for Sub-Saharan Africa. Dr. Saye served as Fulbright Specialist in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and as International Consultant for the United Nations Development Program in The Maldives. Saye earned her Master’s in Human Resource Management at Troy University and her Doctorate in Public Administration at The University of Alabama. She can be reached by email at [email protected]

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