“When individuals have strong community organizations they are more likely to stand up to fight corruption. Officials are also more careful and respectful of communities when communities are better organized. This means that communities feel far more comfortable with democracy when they are stronger because they know their rights will be protected.”

 

These words were shared in February at the Peacebuilding and Local Governance conference in Afghanistan by Jennifer Murtazashvili, University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs associate professor and director of its Center for Governance and Markets.

Held in Kabul, the conference was sponsored by the Independent Directorate for Local Governance, the Afghan government agency responsible for subnational governance, with financial support from USAID. It was attended by 20 mayors, municipal advisory board members, and selected mayoral staff members. It also featured prominent Afghan journalists, academics, and civic leaders.

The goal: To assist mayors of the country in preparing for a peace agreement with the Taliban. 

“As a result of the workshop, the mayors asked for political reform in the country that will give them greater responsibility. Specifically, they argued that without greater decentralization of authority it would be difficult for them to respond effectively to the challenges presented by the peace process,” Murtazashvili said. 

That Murtazashvili was asked to address the room of mayors — providing guidance on the process and potential to peacebuilding — was a significant moment for her.

She is no stranger to Afghanistan and the structure of and hurdles to governance there. 

Murtazashvili began working in Afghanistan in 2005 and has focused almost all of her attention and research on the intersection between security and governance issues there. 

Her award-winning book, Informal Order and the State in Afghanistan (Cambridge University Press, 2016), demonstrates how Afghans in rural areas are able to provide public goods—including dispute resolution—without the state. Interestingly, as state-building efforts increased, citizens at the local level turned away from the state. One of the reasons for this was the fact that the state was the source of so much corruption, which Murtazashvili argues was a result of its highly centralized design. 

“I believe that this drives conflict because most scholars who look at the war in Afghanistan agree that the insurgency by the Taliban and other groups is driven by poor governance in the country. Yet, over the past 20 years there has been little reform of the governance structures. In other words, the current centralized system is a legacy of the past and was resurrected after 2001. Afghans expected changes in governance, yet what they saw at the local level was exactly what they had experienced for decades before,” Murtazashvili said. 

On a personal level, Murtazashvili said that speaking before the mayors was a tremendous honor and comes at a very difficult time for the country as not all parties have agreed on the peace process. She added that it was very moving to hear how committed many of the leaders are to peace in spite of all their personal losses and constant threats they receive to their personal security.