This case reports the results of an experimental study that compares the impact of participatory budgeting versus direct democracy at the sub-national level in Afghanistan.
Problems and Purpose
This democratic innovation was implemented by the National Solidarity Programme (NSP), a nationwide community-driven development program, and executed by the Government of Afghanistan . The NSP has three objectives in empowering communities:
- re-establishing relations between government and rural communities
- providing grants for the reconstruction of physical and social infrastructure
- empowering communities and establishing community-level governance structures
The local government in rural Afghanistan was deeply flawed because powerful village elders dominated decision making. These elders prioritised their interests whilst mainly ignoring the interests of others, excluding contributions from minority groups . Furthermore, the informal nature of rural government meant that elders could act with little to no accountability. This system meant that resource allocation was highly susceptible to elite capture, which exacerbated social inequality in rural Afghanistan.
This democratic innovation's purpose was to see if direct democracy could help resolve elite dominance within the current form of decision making in elite dominant PB council meetings . This would be done by selecting local development projects through a secret-ballot referendum. However, it is crucial to consider that direct democracy conflicts with the traditional norms of consensus-based decision-making in these rural villages.
Background History and Context
Afghanistan has been in a near-continuous war since the Saur revolution in 1978. The 1979 Soviet invasion, occupation and eventual defeat in 1989 prompted a power struggle that led to a series of civil wars which lasted from 1989 until the US invasion in 2001 . Whilst the period of US occupation from 2001-2021 was a period of relative stability for Afghanistan, it was still a period of extreme violence as the Taliban insurgency consistently undermined the new Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. As of 2014, the conflicts since 1978 had been estimated to have claimed over 2 million lives . This, coupled with the emergence of ISIS in 2015, meant that Afghanistan's rural provinces remained virtually lawless. Thus the central government's authority was limited outside of Kabul until it fell to the Taliban in 2021.
Given that in the past 30 years the central government ability to govern peripheral communities has been limited, rural Afghan communities have been forced to develop independent, unofficial systems of government . Local governments tend to use a jirga or shura; these are participatory councils where council members (usually village elders) have a near-limitless powers . In addition to these councils, villages ordinarily have a headman (a malik, arbab, or qariyadar), usually a large landowner who liaises between the village and the sub-national government . This demonstrates how rural Afghanistan's decision-making can be thoroughly dominated by a small group of elders who have little to no accountability.
Prior to the NSP, which was established in 2002 by the new Afghan republic, there were no efforts to introduce direct democracy or participatory budgeting in Afghanistan. This is because prior to the US-backed Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, there was no government in Afghanistan that was stable enough to explore democratic innovations or politically willing to embrace democracy .
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The field experiment was undertaken in coordination with the Afghan Government's NSP to set up Community Development Councils and administer the disbursement of funds for village projects implemented . The Afghan Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development carried out the development programme, facilitated by NGOs, such as UN-HABITAT, and was funded by bilateral and multilateral donors, such as the World Bank. Villages were expected to contribute at least 10 percent of project costs, usually in the form of labour.
After the first phase of NSP was implemented between 2003 and 2007, international donors and the Afghan government requested the programme's impact be evaluated by independent researchers, resulting in the NSP Impact Evaluation, which developed hypotheses to test how far the project's impact would go . The hypotheses also contained formal "project development objectives" to hold the project accountable.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The experiment allocated villages to two treatments, some villages were randomly assigned to experience a PB process using secret-ballot referendums, other villages used a more consultative approach (see process description for details).
In the villages that were voting in secret-ballot referendums, all adults, male and female over 18, were eligible to vote. The villages using referendums showed a relatively high level of participation compared to the villages using consultation meetings to make PB decisions.
The consultation meetings were also open to all villagers to discuss and select the projects to fund but were dominated by officials. The consultation meeting did not rely on citizens for decision making like the referendums. The decision-making in the consultation meeting came down to the development official's evaluation of the discussion. These officials were elected via the NSP through a universal suffrage election to create the gender-balanced village development councils.
The 250 villages included in the experiment had, on average, around 1,000 citizens. It is unclear exactly how the vote was advertised to the villagers to participate. However, due to the small communities with traditional roots, the communities' elders potentially encouraged participation as the referendum had a high level of turnout and villages believed there to be a high level of legitimacy, representing efficient recruitment.
Due to the informal nature of the structural organisation of the village system, it is unclear how recruitment occurred for the consultation meetings and how information was spread, but participation was open to all community members.
Due to the context of this study being in rural Afghanistan, where the government and other informal processes, media would not have played a role in recruitment. Information about the initiative would have spread chiefly through word of mouth.
Methods and Tools Used
This experiment compared two methods of democratic innovation. Firstly, half the villages used the traditional form of consultation based Participatory Budgeting (PB) introduced in the first phase of the project, which involves citizens deciding how to allocate funds in open consultation meetings. This approach is driven by the desire to reallocate public money locally and democratically whilst prioritising initiatives identified by local people since they will know better than anyone how to improve social wellbeing in their area . The other half of the villages used a secret ballot referendum to decide which projects the villagers wanted to pursue. A development council was elected to decide which project villages would vote on in both cases. In the context of rural Afghanistan, PB schemes based on consultation typically suffer from elite capture. Therefore, the study wanted to test the effect of direct democracy in a referendum addressing this issue .
A matched-pair cluster randomisation procedure was used to randomly select the 250 villages that would be a part of the study. The 250 villages are evenly split across ten districts in Afghanistan. Despite the necessary exclusion of southern areas from the sample due to security concerns, the ten districts broadly represented Afghanistan's ethnolinguistic diversity, with five predominantly Tajik districts, four predominantly Pashtun districts, one predominantly Hazara district and two districts with significant populations of Uzbek and Turkmen minorities. Villages were subsequently randomised into two groups, each assigned one of either procedures: referendum or consultation meeting.
NSP necessitated the election of a development council. The development council was elected through a secret ballot . However, 70 percent of development council heads were part of the pre-existing elite. Furthermore, villages must hold re-elections for development councils, but follow-up elections are not facilitated, so it is uncertain if these occurred. In the consultation meetings, PB voting was informal and done in person when ideas were presented. Deliberation was used during council meetings, where citizens could discuss and suggest improvements during the informal voting period. This was meant to allow disadvantaged citizens to express their opinions on proposals.
In the referendums, the proposals were voted on in secret. The implementation of the proposals directly represented those with the most votes. These procedures started with the development council compiling a list of villagers requests and transforming them into proposals. These methods were likely chosen due to their effectiveness in engaging minority and politically inactive groups. Organisers may have chosen this due to the historically low turnout in most Afghan elections.
A tool used by the organisers to help their results were surveys to gauge citizen satisfaction. These were carried out at three stages; a baseline survey, a midpoint survey and a final survey. Application of the secret ballot referendums and the consultation meetings were monitored by representatives from the NSP who interviewed participants and ensured compliance. Participation in these projects varied, with the turnout for the open consultation meetings, was about a third of villagers with an average of 12 council members and 127 villagers— of those who took part in consultation meetings, about eight-spoke. Turnout for the referendums was higher, with around 60% of the adult population participating. On average, 251 villagers voted in referendums.
The NSP did not use any tools to facilitate dialogue. This was a deliberate design choice since they wanted to see the extent to which elite males would dominate the discussion and the extent to which the opinions of lower-ranked citizens would be silenced. They found that many people were censored in the consultation meetings, and elite males dominated the debates.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The villages designated to make referendums used secret ballots to avoid elite capture and promote popular control. Moreover, at least 50 percent of eligible voters in the village had to vote for the referendum to be valid.
In the othee treatment conditions, when development councils made PB decisions, there were no specific requirements on how many villagers must attend or speak for the meeting to be valid, and no formal vote took place- an informal vote, such as raising hands, could be binding.
Regardless of the village used referendums or development council meetings, the processes were open to all regardless of gender or class. Moreover, regardless of the technique used in the village, no rules were established regarding what projects could be implemented. In this regard, participants had a high degree of popular control because citizens were allowed to select what issues they wanted to be addressed and how they wanted these issues to be addressed.
Villages assigned secret ballot referendums were categorised according to voter turnout, projects with higher turnouts were prioritised when it came to financial and material support from the NSP, no such arrangement was made for development councils.
The NSP conducted the project with a high degree of professionalism. They ensured that the project selected by villagers was the one that was implemented and that every project was implemented.
Referendums, in particular, were administered with a high degree of professionalism: 99 percent of polling stations had lists of eligible voters, 97 percent of stations checked names off a registration list, and voters' privacy was assured in 83 percent of villages. This showcases that the process had a good degree of transferability across villages in Afghanistan.
On average, turnout was better for the referendums than for the development councils. According to data obtained monitoring 127 villages (63 assigned to meetings and 64 assigned to referendums), twelve development council members and 143 villagers attended the village meetings (35% of the average village population). In contrast, an average of 251 villages voted in the referendums (60% of the average village population) . Thus referendums were better at generating public interactions. The quality of this public interaction is mixed as 40% of respondents to a final interview (which interviewed male villagers and elites only) in both groups reported some important projects had not been considered. 45% of villages recorded shared preferences between male villagers and male elites toward the same projects. Thus, most discussions experienced opposing preferences and interests between elites and villagers.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The study did give the intended effect of showing that direct democracy, despite conflicting with the traditional customary norms of decision-making within these communities, could limit elite influence. This was calculated using a series of equations that used results from the baseline survey where participants outlined which project they wanted to implement. These answers were then compared to the final projects implemented to see how representative the process was on allocation outcomes, project location and perception of villagers. This was subsequently measured against the results from the villages that continued to use traditional PB methods. The initiative reinforces Olken's writing that direct democracy should improve subjective outcomes as there is less alignment with elite preferences . The survey showed that referendums improved citizens' perception of local governance. However, the initiative demonstrated that direct democracy could also reduce elite capture of the outcomes of allocation of public resources rather than just perception, contradicting Olken's other findings.
The results align with the project's theory of change, despite concerns within other academic writing of limiting elite influence reducing the general welfare . This initiative showed that direct democracy in this context had reduced subjective and objective outcomes while at the same time reducing elite capture over allocation of public resources.
The study influenced public policy in Afghanistan as the government attempted to replicate the secret ballot referendums which the NSP orchestrated. However, the government of Afghanistan was preoccupied with tackling underdevelopment and cycles of conflict, which persisted during that period and, as a result, lacked the funds or political will to implement many similar schemes . Furthermore, the Scheme had a positive impact on NGOs, who were encouraged by the NSP's success to expand their scope in Afghanistan, it showed them that they could work in rural Afghanistan (an area which has traditionally been seen as problematic), and as a result, many NGOs expanded their operations in Afghanistan to the rural provinces. Furthermore, the scheme influenced the social make-up and the attitudes of individuals in several villages as the scheme paid particular attention to gender and class equality, and there is some evidence to suggest that it positively influenced people's views on these issues. Overall, the scheme positively impacted marginalised groups.
Besides the official government policy, the main benefit of direct democracy on these rural Afghan village communities was the increase of village satisfaction when there is more alignment with citizens' views on policies rather than the predominant elite influence. The initiative's goal was to build community influence and reduce the elite in power. Despite the democratically elected development committees in theory representing citizens' views, there have been previous issues about re-election and the uncertainty about follow-up elections. The local authorities of the communities have resulted in the principal-agent problem in terms of allocation of resources. Direct democracy, in this case, has been able to alleviate this by improving public confidence via participation and led to outcomes reflecting that of the community, not the elite.
The scheme studied limiting elite capture, showing that it influenced similar schemes. For example, in Uganda, a scheme that also aimed to limit elite capture in rural local government in an underdeveloped country . This scheme did not share the success of the scheme in Afghanistan due to the participants being less willing to participate and treating the scheme like a box-ticking exercise.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The realisation of inclusiveness is the first democratic good we will analyze following Graham Smith approach . The villages assigned the referendum experienced steps to include women who were traditionally removed from the decision-making process. The requirements for proposals to reach fifty per cent of the total number of eligible voters in each village meant the increase in the likelihood of women casting their votes at the ballot. On the contrary, the possibility of women casting votes due to their husband's political opinions should be considered. Furthermore, the secret ballot of the referendum provided an opportunity for citizens unable to express their political opinions explicitly to engage with the decision-making process privately. This ensures that particular citizens are not dissuaded from engaging in political decision-making.
Meanwhile, the villages assigned the consultation meeting with the development councils failed to achieve inclusivity. On average, 143 villagers attended village meetings- a third of the average total of the adult population in each village. The low turnout restricted decision-making to the most politically minded citizens possessing the most well-established arguments. The discussion was likely limited, for a diversity of opinion could not have arisen.
When we look at popular control, the second Democratic Good proposed by Smith the study reveals that the consultation meetings undermine popular control. Beath et al. (2016) found a wide disparity between male villagers and male elites in their interviews . The elites, however, were found to have had the largest influence over deliberation. A voting system was not compulsory, so proposals were selected and prioritised based on the discussion itself, giving rise to ambiguity over the accurate representation of the participants' opinions.
Political decision-making was not decentralised as it appeared to be, but rather it can be argued, the scheme could be perceived as an attempt to consolidate the power of the central Afghan government over rural communities it had traditionally conflicted with [Missing reference]
Once the consultation was complete and the priorities were made, the citizens did not have any input in implementing the proposals.
Finally, the NSP was vulnerable to elite capture because the consultation and the referendum allowed the elites to provide a well-adjusted and developed argument, while no other opportunity to evaluate or repeat the selection of proposals occurred before the NSP had been allocated.
Consideration must now turn to the third democratic good coined by Graham Smith: considered judgement . The consultations among villagers could be argued to enhance the knowledge among villagers of particular issues and subjects while selecting proposals. However, the referendum undermined the judgement of the citizens because opportunities to process a multi-dimensional argument or arguments did not arise, and the citizens had to choose based on their interests and what Samuel Popkin  describes as "low-information rationality". Nevertheless, the proposals selected, including irrigation, and drinking water projects, had an enormous benefit to the entire village, so voters had shared empathy with their communities; they had their neighbours' interests at heart. As did the villagers assigned the consultation meetings.
The transparency of democratic innovation is crucial to succeeding in enhancing citizen participation. The direct election of the members of the development councils gave rise to the essence of trustworthiness in the consultation mechanisms. The referendum created the expectation that villagers had an equal chance to determine the allocation of resources. The referendum was open to all eligible voters, both men and women, while the consultations with the development councils were open to all in each village assigned to it.
In terms of institution efficiency the project was funded by the NSP through donations given by the World Bank to ensure the progression of democracy in rural Afghanistan and thus it is very difficult to evaluate the cost/benefit ratio. The study was a vast scale project which was costly both in human and economic costs. Thus the project requires a high level of commitment. This commitment could only be assured as a result of significant funding from the World Bank and bilateral funding from states. This funding does not come if building a stable functioning democracy in Afghanistan was not a central focus of US foreign policy at the time. Therefore, if the project were attempted in other similarly underdeveloped nations, it would not succeed because it likely would not have the international community's backing to ensure its success.
Citizens' costs of participation are also difficult to estimate given that the risk of going against traditional customs in rural Afghanistan is difficult to quantify. However the high turnout reported in the aforementioned study might point to the fact that the cost of participating in the secret ballot referendums were not particularly high. However, this study revealed the high cost of the citizens in the consultation meetings in being able to find time to participate.
The fact that the experiment was effectively applied in 250 villages in Afghanistan showcases some degree of transferability within the country, however the aforementioned similar project in Uganda shows that the cross-national applicability might be limited.
Whilst the issue of elite capture is not unique to Afghanistan and needs to be addressed in many other third world nations, the political context of the situation makes this study difficult to repeat. Overall, when it comes to Smiths democratic goods the study showed good levels of inclusivity, transparency and efficiency. The study had limited success when addressing popular control and considered judgement. Finally, the transferability of the study was poor. In conclusion, the study was generally in line with Smith's democratic goods and thus can be considered a healthy democratic exercise.
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