A view of the Nili City, Daikudni – Photo Courtesy, Amanullah Sedaqat

It has been said that government should be ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people.’ With this in mind, in my role as Mayor of Nili Municipality, we taken action to ensure the participation of citizens in urban-decision making processes.  I share these experiences in the article below. 

Zora Ahmadi, Mayor of Nili City, Daikundi

Afghan towns and cities – including Nili – are rapidly urbanizing and are faced with numerous constraints and challenges, including the largely informal nature of development, resource limitations, and gaps in infrastructure and service delivery.  Fractured state-society relations and limited public confidence in government further compound these challenges. 

Despite these challenges, urbanization presents numerous opportunities. Cities can be drivers of economic development and contribute to state and peace-building objectives. If urbanization is properly managed, cities can create livelihood opportunities, improve access to services and drive socioeconomic development. Inclusive cities which provide space for all sectors of society – including women and children – are fundamental for development prospects. 

Consider this: The current urban population of Afghanistan is only one third of the country’s population; yet urban areas currently account for fifty percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. By 2050, the urban share of the country’s population predicted to reach fifty percent. This presents vital opportunities for economic growth and development. 

In this context, participatory planning is an essential tool for harnessing the opportunities of urbanization. International and national experience has shown that participatory planning is essential for expanding access to services and improving state-society relations. 

Participatory planning initiatives have yielded positive outcomes in many Afghan cities, including Nili. Nonetheless, there is a need build knowledge on best practices, to scale-up and institutionalize these approaches.

This article therefore shares lessons learned from participatory planning and project implementation in Nili. It includes the following: (1) Introduction to participatory planning Nili; (2) Benefits of urban planning; (4) Challenges and factors to be considered; and (5) Recommendations to scale-up, institutionalize and expand public participation. 

  • Introduction to participatory planning in Nili 

Background

Participatory planning is an urban planning approach grounded in the understanding that putting the public at the center of urban decision-making leads strong outcomes. In a participatory planning, the various sectors of the community are involved in all phases of urban planning and project implementation – in large cities and small villages alike. The inclusion of the various community sectors in a fair and transparent manner is central to the approach. Public participation in urban decision-making is increasingly seen as a key strategy to develop sustainable urban solutions and contribute to building government-citizen trust. 

In Afghanistan, the concept of participation is not a new phenomenon. Concepts of participation and cooperation have a long history, for example hasher,the long-standing cooperation and assistance in the social life of the people. With rising urbanization, however, traditional social networks and pattern of participation have changed and often become fractured. Patterns of participation therefore need to be adapted to the modern urban context. 

The importance of participatory planning is highlighted in the Urban National Priority Programme 2016–2026, in particular Flagship Action 2 – City for All. Under the CFA programme, the Ministry of Urban Development and Land, Kabul Municipality, Deputy Ministry of Municipalities and local authorities (including Nili), with the support of UN-Habitat, have led efforts to mainstream participatory urban planning and co-implement urban infrastructure projects in eleven cities, along with the programme’s other objectives to improve land tenure security and municipal governance. The U-NPP also sets an objective to upgrade informal settlements in the major cities using a citywide, multi-sectoral and participatory approach, which has been operationalized through the Citizens Charter in Cities programme.  

Furthermore, participatory planning is central to many global mandates to which Afghanistan is a signatory, such as the New Urban Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals. The SDGs are a set of 17 globally-agreed goals to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. These include Goal 11 which aims to make cities safe and sustainable by ensuring access to safe and affordable housing and upgrading slum settlements –  in a way that is both participatory and inclusive. Goal 11’s Target 11.3 aims to enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanization and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management in all countries by 2030.  

Participatory planning by Nili Municipality 

In Nili City, the municipality has recently taken initiative to deliver urban services through public participation. The communities are involved at each step, including project proposal, assessment, planning, monitoring and evaluation. The communities also contribute 10 percent of the total budget of project costs, which therefore helps ensure ownership and project sustainability. 

It was initially difficult to institutionalize the participatory planning approach, but this has been made possible through meeting with the various community sectors of the city, engagement of elders and local leaders, and a safayicampaign which provides the incentive for the highest safayipaying gozars to implement projects. 

The municipality has now established and institutionalized an approach for participatory planning and co-implementation of projects. These participatory planning efforts yield promising results at the local level and contribute to the achieving the goals of the U-NPP, the SDGs and New Urban Agenda.

Zohra Ahmadi, Mayor for the Nili city discusses the public participation aspects and benefits with the city elders

Aspects of participatory planning in Nili

The key aspects of participatory planning in Nili, as can be found in other Afghan cities, can be summarized as follows:

  1. Establishment of Community Development Councils and Gozar Assemblies:CDCs and GAs (area-based networks of households) are important mechanisms for mobilizing residents for collective community-led action. Given the position of CDCs and GAs as parallel structures to formal local governance, these structures facilitate community-government collaboration. 
  2. Community action planning:This involves community workshops to collectively identify strengths, weaknesses and opportunities of their local urban area, to propose solutions and priority projects, and develop actions plan to guide local urban development. 
  3. Co-implementation of civil works projects:priority civil works infrastructure projects are co-implemented by government and the community.  
  4. Community contributions: Community contributions help ensure ownership of projects and foster government-public collaboration. These can be in-kind, such as labor or materials, or cash, often 10 percent of the project cost. 
  5. Inclusive and gender-sensitive approaches:Inclusive approaches require involving the various community sectors and stakeholders. This includes youth, women, children, religious leaders, NGOs and UN agencies with technical expertise in the urban sector and civil society groups. Gender sensitivity means ensuring women are given full opportunity to contribute in a fair manner, for example by undertaking women-only focus groups, including women in the structure of local-level councils, and forming women’s council, as we have done in Nili. 
  • Benefits of participatory planning 

The benefits of participatory planning are numerous. Through the implementation of participatory planning in Nili, numerous positive results have been solicited. Examples include:

  • More effective projects:Technical experts can gain valuable inputs from the community in the design, planning and implementation of infrastructure projects. Furthermore, experience has shown that including women and children in design processes leads to better outcomes: urban services and infrastructure that are safe and useable for all.
  • Project sustainability: Involving the community in all phases of project infrastructure development and implementation, combined with community contributions results in invested stake in the ownership of projects and thus helps ensure the sustainability and maintenance of infrastructure. 
  • Improved communication between government and citizens: Co-implementation and co-ownership of projects provides a mechanism for ongoing collaboration between government and citizens. 
  • Stronger state-society relations: Public participation is a democratic process: it allows citizens to see tangible action from government to improve local urban conditions in line with public needs and thereby builds trust. 
  • Improved intra-society communication:Participatory planning is a collaborative approach which encourages citizens to consider the collective benefits over political and ethnic prerogatives. This makies it an important tool for fostering communication and respect across divides.  In Nili, we initially found ingrained intra-society divisions can challenge collective decision making. However, intra-society communication improves with each participatory action as people become more accustomed to collective decision-making. 
  • Development of relevant local development action plans: Governments urgently need more planning and problem-solving; they cannot run on automatic pilot. But urban planning is not a one-off activity. Cities of rapid change require plans to be reviewed and updated regularly. Bringing together stakeholders along with technical experts is the most effective way to tackle new problems, address opportunities and define new directions.
  • Greater commitment to implement projects and plans:When people participate in a planning process, they are more likely to be committed to the plans, because they have talked them through, because the plans reflect their own thinking, and because the group has developed consensus. 
  • Encouragement of creativity, initiative and responsibility: Bringing together the views and ideas of various stakeholders results in a greater ideas and creative solutions to urban problems. And co-implementation provides an opportunity for citizens to take initiative and responsibility of the infrastructure and development of their urban area.
Mayor Zohra Ahmadi in a monthly advisory workshop with the public members an students in Nili municipality
  • Challenges and factors to be considered  

Despite the recent gains and recognition of the importance of participatory planning, there are also many challenges and factors which need to be considered. 

Challenges 

Unfortunately, in the past the role of the community has sometimes only been limited to implementation stage of projects – rather than in the assessment, planning, and monitoring stages of projects too. In cases where public participation is not undertaken properly, projects are undertaken without genuine involvement of the public which results in ineffective outcomes.

Another challenge – and one that we were initially faced with in Nili – is that the public view urban service delivery as a solely government responsibility, even despite low municipal revenue. Fortunately, public participation in urban-service delivery increases the public’s understanding of the benefits of collaborating with government to improve the local urban conditions. 

Furthermore, due to negative past experiences, the public may lack confidence in government authorities, and may view participation as something that is politically motivation or just undertaken as a tokenistic requirement.

Factors to be considered

In addition to considering the above challenges, participatory approaches should consider the following: 

  • Community awareness:the public must be informed about the importance and value of being involved in projects from the early stage. The community must be mobilized at all stages of the projects to achieve theproject sustainability.
  • Involvement in all stages: it is crucial to involve all sectors of the community in all stage of projects, from needs assessment, formulation, feasibility studies, planning and design, implementation, monitoringand evaluation. 
  • Project implementation, monitoring and maintenance training: Communities should receive training and support to improve to their capacity to implementand maintain projects. If community members are to not well prepared with skills andknowledge of project management and maintenance, it will be challenging to achieve project sustainability.
  • Project sustainability:Without participation and a sense of ownership, projects are unlikely to be maintained long-term which puts the objectives of the project at risk. A maintenance plan, which set out responsibility between government and communities, is an important tool in this regard. 
  • Recommendations

Based on the experience and goals of Nili Municipality, the following recommended actions are made with the view to scale-up and institutionalize participatory approaches. 

Scaling-up participatory approaches

An important next step is to scale participatory approaches across municipal activities, beyond just urban planning and projects. There are numerous potential benefits to be made from public participation in the broader management of municipalities. The following recommended actions are made in this regard:

  1. Develop and institutionalize a system for receiving proposals for urban services from the public, as well as local contractors.
  2. Solicit early stage involvement of the public when formulating development programs.
  3. Disseminate detailed and comprehensive report about the activities and actions of the municipality to the public.
  4. Establish public monitoring councils to monitor and provide feedback on projects and current affairs of the municipality.
  5. Implement procedures to ensure the municipality pays attention to citizens’ satisfaction, such as ongoing surveys and follow up actions. 
  6. Facilitate direct and continuous relationship between the mayor and the people through regular council and committee sessions and public forums. 

It should be noted that to undertake effective and sustainable public participation, government commitment and preconditions are required. These are preconditions without which efforts to undertake and institutionalize participation will not succeed. These include:

  1. The conviction of the government management and the influential officials to participatory approaches and their strong support to undertake action.
  2. The confidence of municipal staff in the effectiveness of participatory planning.
  3. Implementation and continuity of participatory activities in non-violent situations. 
  4. Knowledge of the long-term results and patience to reach these results.
  5. Continuity of urbans plans, so that they are not canceled with changes in management.  

Actions for promoting public participation

Finally, the following actions are necessary to improve the conditions for and sustain public participation:

  • Establish and strengthen local councils, including women-centered councils and committees to increase the participation of women.
  • Collaborate with non-governmental organizations and civil society organizations as a bridge for enhancing public participation. Encourage these organizations to integrate participatory in all their activities.   
  • Expand educational programmes to build public understanding of concepts of participation, especially for children and adolescents. Encourage scientific and cultural educators to lead educational activities. 
  • Undertaken communications campaigns about participatory approaches and projects, including campaigns to congratulate communities which have taken initiative. Collaborate with local leaders and influential individuals to promote participation. 
  • Implement actions to ensure inclusion of various stakeholders, including the youth, the elderly, women, disabled and the marginalized.
  • Take inclusive actions so that government lead by example, such as the appointment of women and younger persons as mayors and in other positions of authority. 
  • Organize and incentivize participation in collaborative activities, such as environmental improvement programs, cultural activities, sports and safety initiatives, etc. at various levels (schools, offices, guilds and neighborhoods etc.).
  • Take initiative to respond to the factors which have limited the trust of citizens. Provide platforms for discussing issues, proposing solutions and implementing measures to improve government-society relations. 
  • Disseminate successful participatory examples and lessons learned, with the view to understand which problems are most effectively addressed with participatory approaches and which approaches are suited to specific regions and urban contexts in Afghanistan. 

Let me return to the point made earlier: Afghan cities and towns are growing rapidly. The challenges faced are numerous – but so too are the potential benefits of urbanization. Public participation is a vital tool to harness the opportunities.

We must work together to scale-up and institutionalize participatory approaches, so that we build inclusive, sustainable and peaceful Afghan towns and cities. 

About Author

Zohra Ahmadi is a very young female Mayor. She has been appointed as the Mayor for Nili city in Daikundi in 2018. She has previously worked with AKDN, UNAMA and Un-Habitat organizations in Afghanistan. She has Masters in urban planning from the Architecture and Urban Development faculty of Tehran University.

Author

  • Zohra Ahmadi

    Zohra Ahmadi is a very young female Mayor. She has been appointed as the Mayor for Nili city in Daikundi in 2018. She has previously worked with AKDN, UNAMA and Un-Habitat organizations in Afghanistan. She has Masters in urban planning from the Architecture and Urban Development faculty of Tehran University.