Editor’s Note: This is a guest blog post by Katherine Bradbury, Project Assistant on NDI's Asia team.
In March 2002, NDI established an office in Afghanistan and has since worked to promote the participation of civic groups, political parties, women, and government bodies in the country’s political and electoral processes. This process has taken place in the context of a difficult transition from Taliban rule to new democratic institutions. While political organizations and civil society groups have made progress in advancing democratic political processes, much more needs to be done to protect gains Afghanistan has made in democratic governance, political pluralism, and the protection of human rights, especially the rights of women. Security, political stability, and democratic governance are closely linked, and the legitimacy of Afghanistan’s government hinges on credible elections. The recent 2014 presidential and provincial elections presented an opportunity to promote fair and peaceful competition for political power, and sustain the progress that has been made to-date in Afghanistan.
Prior to the elections, the NDItech team highlighted how technology could help to support electoral integrity; promote participation and confidence; and improve how political parties compete, citizens participate, and civil society organizations observe electoral processes. Now, following the protracted 2014 electoral process and the establishment of a National Unity Government, the policy community is engaging in broader discussions on prospects for democratic governance in Afghanistan. One such discussion was hosted by the US Institute of Peace (USIP) and titled, “Tech Rising: The Influence of Social Media and New Technologies in Afghanistan’s Democracy.” The October conference included panels that explored how media advancements over the last decade have shaped and will continue to influence Afghanistan’s path towards a stronger democratic state. For those that missed the conversation, here are some highlights:
In the first conference panel, USIP highlighted the influence of traditional and social media on Afghanistan’s presidential election. Naqib Ahmad Khpulwak, Assistant Professor at the American University of Afghanistan, pointed out that social media is changing the political and social culture of Afghanistan. Basharat Rahimullah, USIP’s Senior Media and Peacebuilding Officer, expanded on this point by expressing how well then-presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani recognized and harnessed social media during the election. For instance, Ghani established a volunteer-driven media center to increase youth access to social media and encourage young people to participate in the electoral process. This media center reached 3.8 million people per week.
Panelist Emal Pasarly, BBC Multimedia Editor (Pashto), detailed the rise of media outlets over the last decade. In the 2004 presidential election, Afghanistan had one TV station; few newspapers and radio stations; minimal internet access; and two-to-three million mobile phones on the market. By 2014, the media landscape in Afghanistan had expanded dramatically: 80+ TV stations; 800 newspapers and magazines; 145 radio stations; 17 to 18 million mobile phones; and one million Facebook users. With such advancements, media outlets were able to provide up-to-date and live coverage of election events, as panelist Habib Khan Totakhil of the Wall Street Journal noted. One area of improvement for the next election cycle will be the reduction in biased coverage.
The second panel focused on how new technology can shape government transitions and strengthen democratic governance. Panelists emphasized how social media can help to increase transparency, creating greater opportunities for holding governments accountable. Panelist Peymana Assad, Communications and Events Project Manager for British and Irish Agencies Afghanistan Group and Trainee with the Fabian Women’s Network, discussed the use of social media among women. The literacy rate poses a challenge for use of social media in Afghanistan, where only 12 percent of women are literate (compared with 81 percent in Iran and 42 percent in Pakistan). A related hurdle is that English is the most commonly used language in social media networking, and language barriers may hinder women’s access to networking platforms. Likewise, there are social taboos regarding women and use of the internet. Nevertheless, there are key demographics of Afghan women who do utilize social media, such as women who were raised or educated abroad; youth who are seeking higher education opportunities in the capital and internationally; and professionals who write in Dari or Pashto. Several other issues were discussed during this panel, including the need for cyber laws to deal with intellectual property and gender safety issues. Also discussed was the need for training that targets the self-censoring rural areas in order to create more confidence and courage in rural society, in the hopes of forming a more networked country.
Overall, the conference was packed with valuable information about the impact of media and technology advancements on Afghan governance in the past, present, and future. While obstacles to building public confidence still exist, the policy community and technologists alike are eager to find ways for digital technologies to enhance transparency and citizen participation.