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Let's Talk Human Rights

What's Missing in Youth Participation Programs for Afghan Civil Society?

By Emma Adams, Morgan Day and Justin This

In February 2020, after months of electoral disputes and vote recounts, the 2019 Afghan election results were announced. Incumbent Ashraf Ghani was re-elected and took the presidential oath: however, his opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, did as well. This presidential crisis highlights the development issues impacting Afghanistan in the post-Taliban period, raising questions of whether the country is prepared for a democratic transition, how to manage widespread corruption, and the role of civil society in Afghanistan.

These challenges are not new to Afghanistan. In response to them, Counterpart International established the Afghan Civic Engagement Program (ACEP), which ran from 2013-2020, to strengthen civil society, improve voter education, increase government accountability, and empower disadvantaged groups within Afghan society. ACEP implemented a youth empowerment program which helps young people become involved in civil society and prepares them to engage in the democracy-building process.

Youth in Afghanistan have experienced  a range of  challenges in the post-conflict period, including limited access to education, high unemployment, and lack of political voice. As a result, youth have become a target of recruitment efforts by extremist groups. This vulnerability, combined with Afghanistan’s struggles for good governance and sustainable civil society, makes youth an important demographic to reach. ACEP sought to increase youth’s involvement in the key decision-making processes of government and civil society so that they can have the voice previously denied to them and help improve their country. ACEP strives to reach this goal through its Emerging Civil Society Leaders (ECSL) program including international study trips.

Our research

We analyzed the ECSL program in an effort to assess the extent to which it succeeded in promoting the voices of marginalized groups within Afghanistan. We also viewed the program through the critical lens of participation in development provided by The Development Dictionary, by Majid Rahnema. We found that, while the ESCL program is successful in promoting a few marginalized voices, it required additional focus on guaranteeing the inclusion of marginalized groups on an intersectional level.

International development organizations, Afghan civil society organizations, and ultimately the Afghan government, are the key stakeholders in youth participation in Afghan civil society. Many organizations, including Counterpart, are making substantial efforts to incorporate the voices traditionally missing from decision-making, such as youth and women. For example:

  • The Youth Empowerment Project (YEP), spearheaded by the United Nations Human Settlement Program and completed in 2009, aimed to involve youth in the economic, social and cultural life of their communities. Activities included training for youth coordinators, civic education, and foreign study visits, similar to those sponsored by Counterpart. This project’s collaborative nature included roles for government institutions, civil society organizations, and Afghan youth.
  • United States Institute for Peace (USIP) and local partners in Afghanistan recently completed a project utilizing participatory theater to challenge cultural norms, prevent electoral violence, and emphasize youth participation and female representation. USIP is also currently running a Youth Advisory Council (YAC) that is competitively selected on an annual basis. The YAC engages youth leaders’ regional and thematic expertise to inform USIP’s broader research and programming.
  • The Asia 21 Youth Leaders Initiative (AYLI), managed by the Asia Society, operates in sixteen countries including Afghanistan. While both AYLI and ACEP attempt to develop leadership skills in targeted youth populations with the hope of developing future leaders, the AYLI focuses on youth participation on an explicitly international level.

Strengthening Future Programming in Afghanistan

After reviewing the projects above and comparing them to ACEP, we found that they share a key missing element that needs to be addressed if future programs could better transform youth governance engagement in Afghanistan. Most importantly, we found all four projects lacked intentional strategies to deconstruct programmatic barriers and reach marginalized groups within the already disenfranchised Afghan youth population. In the context of Afghan history, in particular the recent period of the Taliban, the most marginalized groups have been women and religious minorities.

Notably, we identified that these programs have established systems that have, intentionally or not, excluded these groups. For example, the AYLI program often recruits people who are already in positions of leadership, and the YAC requires that potential participants go through an application process. Such systems tend to benefit those who are already privileged, including more resources to spend on an application process for such programs.

Ways to address barriers to entry are numerous; these programs could implement a quota system, setting up program components targeted for young women or other marginalized groups to overcome barriers to accessing leadership roles, or even targeted promotion of the programs and making them accessible in areas where predominately marginalized groups live. In addition, Counterpart could include activities in the future intended to promote collaboration between marginalized groups and those who come from a privileged background, such as many of the participants of ECSL program. The program could develop tools through which to facilitate interaction and discussion between the privileged and the marginalized, aiming to break-down existing barriers and power structures within the population of youth themselves. By taking such steps, programs would support a stage for marginalized youth voices to be heard and bring fresh ideas on how to face Afghanistan’s challenges. In turn, youth participation has the potential to increase the access by marginalized groups to decision-making processes to shape the future of the country. While breaking down intersectional marginalization in Afghanistan is a critical challenge, more intentional steps in this direction may prove fruitful. Ultimately, the various international programs would better achieve their goal of promoting the voices and impact of youth in decision-making. We recommend that future programs should more intentionally provide access to those who have not traditionally had a voice in Afghan politics and in the decision-making process.


This article is part of the “Next Generation in Thought Leadership” series - a partnership between the University of Dayton Human Rights CenterInternational Studies Program and Counterpart International. Students conduct applied research providing valuable research to countries in Counterpart’s program portfolio. 

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