As you look down the stretch of Haji Ayub road, suddenly you see a run-down, blue cabin right in the middle of the road. Users of this road, which was just completed after several delays in August 2012, were puzzled by the presence of this little structure since it blocks the road. Why was it there? Why hadn’t the government removed the structure? These are questions that had frustrated and challenged Abdul Salaam and Rahmatullah, who monitored the construction of this road in Gurghan, Mazar-e-Sharif.
The people of Gurghan, a community of roughly 1800 inhabitants, are frustrated with this road project, which has been under construction since March 2011. In May 2012, when Abdul Salaam and Rahmatullah came to the Integrity Watch office in Mazar for the Monthly Local Monitor’s meeting, they expressed deep dissatisfaction and frustration with the road project: the problems remained unsolved causing delays in the project. The project is funded by the Ministry of Public Works. This case study demonstrates an example of how a community struggles with limited resources against the interests of powerful actors who are unresponsive to their demands and concerns. In the case of Gurghan, it becomes readily apparent that citizen-led accountability efforts can be hampered and even result in failure if the community cannot challenge powerful actors who use political clout to act with impunity in the construction business. For Abdul Salaam and Rahmatullah, participating in community-based monitoring has not rendered the type of success stories that other local monitors have experienced.
The first issue they had to advocate for was making sure the company built a proper foundation for the road. Historically, trenches were built in the middle of road as a flood resistance mechanism. Local officials had previously advised the city to dig deep waterways to ensure that floodwater does not damage city roads and houses located by the road. Several trenches could therefore, be found all across Haji Ayub road. Residents were using these trenches as dumping grounds for garbage and had subsequently, completely clogged them. When the company started working on this project, they discovered this problem of the trenches. After considering the additional costs of compaction and graveling, the construction company decided to abandon the project. This affair continued until government officials from Kabul traveled to Mazar and negotiated new terms with the company. The first issue was thus, addressed. The company however, claims that the government did not compensate them for the extra expenditures on compaction and graveling as negotiated.
The second issue that needed to be addressed was the existence of Sakhi’s cabin right after the Haji Ayub intersection. Sakhi is a powerful man in the community who has commonly known links with many gangs and criminals in the city. Apparently, he rented the cabin from the government on a long-term lease. The cabin poses serious problems for the road. It blocks the view of drivers passing the intersection, and the foundation of the road is shallow around the cabin. The road’s foundation must however, be strong enough to resist floodwater in winters because it is located after the bridge, under the main road. The company therefore, could not properly compact that area. Local monitor Abdul Salaam expressed his frustration, “We reported this issue to the local officials, but they didn’t do anything about it.”
The third issue facing Abdul Salaam and Rahmatullah has been the delays in project implementation. By June 2012, the project should have been completed according to the original plan. But as the local monitors explained:
There are rumors in the community that the company has sent the machinery for this project to Badakshan. Last winter, heavy rains badly flooded the road and it partially damaged the foundation. If this project was further delayed, the foundation may not have made it through the next winter.
The construction company however, is not the only actor causing delays. There is a septic well in the middle of the road, which belongs to another powerful person in the community. Although the local monitors reported this problem, nobody took it seriously. The company ended up building the foundation above the septic well, which is extremely fragile. For example, if a heavy loaded truck passes that stretch of the road, then it causes a very high risk of collapse. In the same spot, to add insult to injury, the road has been narrowed from the 50 meters specified in the contract to 40 meters, which further increases the risk of collapse. In this case, the community has not been able to do anything because the owner of the septic well is a powerful and influential man.
The community is not only frustrated by the attitude of what they perceive as a Cowboy Construction Company, they are also dismayed by the lack of community participation and support for community infrastructure. As one local monitor stated:
As mentioned above, there were several factors contributing to the failure of community-based monitoring in Gurghan. Broad community participation is vital in determining the success or failure of citizen-led social accountability initiatives. The local monitors cannot bring change by themselves. It is the broader community’s commitment and determination that make the bottom-up accountability schemes productive or counterproductive. CBM is thus, a “struggling together” approach. The problem is that the rate of social participation is not always the same in all communities. Some communities are more active than others. It depends on the level of understanding that citizens have regarding their rights and duties.
Another reason for the difficulties in mobilizing the community is that it is located in the heart of Mazar city, where there are large inequalities in terms of wealth, power and education. In urban settings, community members are not well connected to each other, because in contrast to the rural contexts, there is little shared history and sense of collective vulnerability. Some families have only recently settled in the community. Perhaps, this lack of shared history, and inadequate sense of collective vulnerability and social inequalities can together account for the level of inaction, lack of participation and support for the CBM intervention in this community.
The second lesson to be learned from this case study is that low levels of community participation provide ample space for greedy local elites and corrupt individuals to misuse public resources and protect their own interests at the cost of the public. The road was eventually completed in August 2012 and is a great relief to the residents of Mazar. And though the blue cabin was also removed, this was not a victory for collective community action. The construction company has reputed links to the Balkh governor’s office and it is likely that the removal was due to pressure from above. This was a case of the interests of local elites being overruled by the interests of provincial elites.
To sum up, what we can learn from this case study is that community-based monitoring requires the community’s commitment, especially in support of local monitors who cannot put adequate pressure on “cowboy builders” and local elites without them.