After three years of struggling, the Kart-i-Wahdat community finally received funding for a school. They were optimistic that next year their kids would not have to sit in tents through the freezing winter and sweltering summers. They had even allocated the land needed for the school. The residents of Ali Abad, however, faced tremendous challenges in making sure that the school would be a safe and comfortable place for their children. The poor quality of school buildings has been a huge issue in reconstruction projects in Afghanistan.
In 2005, students of the newly rebuilt Seljuki High School in District 8 of Herat City heard a loud explosion. The students feared it was a suicide bombing and panic incited across the school. 3000 students rushed down the staircase to escape. But as students ran down the stairs, the staircase and handrail collapsed. 7 students died and 3 were injured. This horrific tragedy was not caused by terrorism, but a more benign and widespread evil: corruption in construction.
It turns out that what the students had heard was not a suicide bomb, but a gas balloon explosion. And the staircase and handrails collapsed because of the low quality construction materials used for the school.
These types of stories have rapidly spread across Afghanistan, which leads parents to worry about their local schools collapsing and their children being harmed due to poor construction materials and standards. The introduction of community-based monitoring (CBM) thus provides a mechanism for worried parents to translate their concerns into collective action and hold contractors and local governments accountable for the safety of their children.
Community Action in Ali Abad
The Ali Abad community was similarly alienated from the school construction project until community leaders nominated and elected two men to become local monitors with IWA’s CBM program. When Muhammad Afzal and Hellaludin started monitoring the school, they discovered many problems. They realized that the contractor was cutting costs in a way that could have dangerous consequences. For instance, they discovered the company planned to use expired cement in the construction, which could have greatly decreased the lifespan and structural quality of the building. The community, with assistance from IWA’s engineers and focal points, succeeded in preventing them from using such sub-grade materials.
After this episode, however, the company stopped cooperating with the community and the local monitors. Community members became angrier as problems kept increasing. The newly mortared floor was built in an unimaginably bad manner with very low-quality materials. One of the community members demonstrated how poor the quality of the mortar was by scratching his feet on the floor. The mortar soon after started to fall apart and disintegrate.
The community was also concerned with the way Kagul (a type of clay uses for the roof) was carried to the roof. The clay was carried using the already plastered walls, which left a lot of dust and clay on the walls. When the school is painted, the paint will not adhere well to the walls and start to peel soon after drying.
In addition to these problems, the community feared that the well on the school site would be left unfinished. At first, it was not clear why a community would be so upset about an unfinished well. But, then they explained that unfinished wells could be contaminated or poisoned by anyone. Well-contamination becomes even easier when the surrounding walls are left incomplete. There have been several stories in the media of wells being poisoned across Afghanistan. Though, the Ministry of Education has not yet concluded its investigation regarding the veracity of these incidents, the fear of poisoned wells has reached the minds of some communities.
The local monitors and community are actively engaged in fighting corruption and they have been very pragmatic in this journey. The Deputy Ministry of Education recently visited a nearby village, and the Ali Abad community members urged him to visit their school and hear their grievances. One of the interesting approaches that Muhammad has employed is using his mobile phone to document anything that is wrong. He records all the transgressions the contractor makes with his mobile. Using low-tech devices can thus, be crucial to community-driven accountability mechanisms. In his grainy video recording, he captured images of the wooden ceiling, where beams were not properly installed. These recording helped the community make the case to the contractor that they should change and reinstall the beams and use better quality materials. He was thus, able to collect important and solid evidence of the company’s actions.
The question we have to answer is that in spite of all the grassroots efforts, why does the company still insist on being unaccountable to the community and the quality of their work has not drastically improved?
This problem roots on broader contextual factors. Corruption is systematic and widespread in Afghanistan especially in the construction sector. Many warlords and corrupt, powerful people are heavily involved and invested in the construction business. Corruption-driven profits in construction projects are an important means to keeping them in power. It is really hard to hold them accountable. In addition, the existence of corruption or inefficiency in overseeing bodies, both governmental institutions and donors, is another factor that limits the power of community intervention since they are the authorities who have the legal power to demand compensations and ultimately punish construction companies. Many corrupt companies can thus, act with relative impunity.
Community participation is only one element of a successful anti-corruption intervention. Citizens’ engagement alone is not enough. There must be reward and punishment mechanisms to make sure that the voices of people are heard. There should be a strong political will in order to encourage honest and professional companies and a zero-tolerance policy for corrupt firms. In the absence of such mechanisms, communities become frustrated. And community-driven accountability initiatives, which are a part of the bottom-up statebuilding agenda for post-conflict contexts, might give rise to violence and greater grievances. For example, the local monitor in this community has recently reacted violently against the workers and engineers of the company. He punched one of the engineers after a heated argument. This may seem like a relatively small incident, but such incidents can quickly snowball into larger, more violent conflicts.
To conclude, as it was discussed, community-based monitoring should be part of a holistic anti-corruption approach. It will be less effective if other actors involving in anti-corruption campaign do not actively engage in curbing corruption and promoting transparency. And fighting corruption in this case has much higher stakes, because it is about protecting the lives of children. It can either be by making sure wells are properly built and covered, so they cannot be contaminated. Or, it can be ensuring the quality of building materials in order to prevent the collapse of school buildings that can hurt children. The stakes are too high to let communities fight corrupt construction firms by themselves.