Justice for All: Mahfuza Folad and the resilience of Afghan CSOs

akhila This is a guest post by Akhila Kolisetty, a student at Harvard Law School who writes at Journeys Toward Justice. Akhila has worked and volunteered for BRAC, International Bridges to Justice, the ACLU, the Northwestern Centre on International Human Rights, the Asian/Pacific Islander Domestic Violence Resource Project, and Justice for All.


Despite the burst of negative press regarding corruption of charities in Afghanistan generated by Three Cups of Tea and author Greg Mortenson’s alleged financial mismanagement of the Central Asia Institute, the reality is that hundreds of courageous and tireless Afghan activists are continuing to lead civil society organizations (CSOs) and are pushing forward a burgeoning nonprofit sector in Afghanistan. Yet they face numerous challenges and limitations unique to the environment of Afghanistan, a nation struggling with conflict, extreme poverty, and extensive resource constraints. Despite the sometimes seemingly insurmountable hurdles, Afghan activists have met these obstacles with impressive ingenuity, passion, and dedication.

A key concern facing CSOs is, not surprisingly, security. Due to continued suicide attacks, lack of rule of law, and poor security for NGO workers, many NGOs are nervous about expanding their services to provinces of Afghanistan where the population is especially poor and vulnerable, and lacks access to basic services, as some of these areas are also those with insufficient security. Thus, the work of CSOs is often concentrated in a few key regions with better security.

For those CSOs that do attempt to implement programs in different provinces and rural areas, accepted customs and the continued influence of warlords often impede their progress. Mahfuza Folad, Executive Director of Justice for All Organization (JFAO) – a CSO focused on access to legal services, women’s rights, and rule of law – has found that while JFAO provides legal awareness and education programs for women and girls, many communities prohibit women from attending such programs. It is difficult to persuade community leaders to change such practices and attitudes, and many CSOs face difficulties implementing programs for women and girls as a result.

JFAO's legal training sessions have trained 1640 people in Takhar and Banjshir. Source: JFAO.org

JFAO’s legal training sessions have trained 1640 people in Takhar and Banjshir. Source: JFAO.org

Another issue is lack of coordination. Often, several organizations focus on the same issues or propose the same projects and interventions in the same geographical area and with the same target group. Many programs are thus duplicated and become less effective, while those in need continue to lack access to services. Some initiatives have attempted to address this problem: JFAO launched an NGO coordination board in Kundoz province to help NGOs work together to eliminate duplicated projects. Yet in the process, it found that coordinating organizations is extremely difficult, and such initiatives require years to have substantial impact. Ms. Folad suggests that donors should clearly indicate to organizations that they won’t fund replicated projects in the same overlapping geographical regions, and that grantmakers can also choose to fund consortiums instead of individual organizations to reduce duplication.

Finally, local CSOs struggle with internal challenges such as fundraising, management, and attracting experts and qualified professionals. Many foundations require grant proposals in English, which can pose an obstacle to underfunded, small Afghan CSOs that lack access to English-speaking development professionals who can assist them in applying. Organizations based in the US can also benefit from sustained high levels of individual donor fundraising that can keep groups going even while grant funding is scarce, but the middle and upper class in Afghanistan is extremely small, and there is little domestic philanthropy. Thus, CSOs remain project-based and financially unsustainable: if there are no funded projects, the activities stop, causing the general populace to lose trust in CSOs.

Due to lack of funding, CSOs cannot offer salaries comparable to multilateral agencies and international NGOs, nor can they offer comparable safety or stability. Thus, local CSOs often have a more difficult time attracting qualified staff, especially experts who are at the top of their professions, fluent in English, or experienced in management, accounting, or fundraising. Ms. Folad agrees that large international funders can support local and grassroots CSOs not only financially, but through trainings, technical assistance, and educational courses on critical areas such as accounting, management, leadership, and fundraising. Funders should also increasingly fund the core operational expenses of CSOs, so that organizations can move from being project-based to a self-sustainable state, and should not hesitate to fund staff salaries and security expenses. Only then, says Ms. Folad, can CSOs attract and ensure the safety of qualified staff.

In 2009, after opening up a pioneering Legal Advice Bureau in Kabul with the help of Global Rights, Mahfuza Folad left her position as a judge to become the leader of JFAO. Ms. Folad had a vision of expanding access to justice for women and girls across Afghanistan, a goal she continues to pursue. Most recently, JFAO opened Legal Advice Bureaus in Kundoz, Badakhshan, and Khost provinces to reach women and girls in more remote regions of the country who often have little recourse to legal aid if they are victims of abuse.

JFAO's training programs have educated women and girls about their legal and human rights. Source: JFAO.org

JFAO’s training programs have educated women and girls about their legal and human rights. Source: JFAO.org

Ms. Folad’s journey has not been without obstacles. JFAO started in a room without chairs or tables with only one computer. Global Rights provided Ms. Folad’s organization with some basic facilities such as an office space and Internet, but JFAO still had a long way to go towards sustainability. With perseverance, Ms. Folad managed to hire staff, obtain more funding from donors, and gain the assistance of volunteers in fundraising. Even with this expansion, until 2011 JFAO did not have a financial officer and thus had difficulty setting up an effective accounting system. After 2011, JFAO finally managed to fundraise enough to obtain needed equipment for the office such as a computer, printer, and furniture.

Even today, JFAO still lacks funds to conduct an audit, hire a fundraising director, or ensure the sustainability of their core operations. JFAO remains a project-based organization: if they are unable to obtain funding for projects from donors, they will be forced to close the doors of their offices, disappointing clients – and potentially even putting their lives at risk – in dire need of legal help. Yet with the assistance of the international community, Ms. Folad has hope that she and her organization will continue to exist and hopefully even grow, and that Afghan women can continue to access much-needed legal support.

One Response to “Justice for All: Mahfuza Folad and the resilience of Afghan CSOs”
  1. Mort Mrotenson says:

    Your article starts off with a bang. There was more, much more, than just ‘negative press’ about corruption generated by the three cups of deceit scandal. There were real costs to community groups when the big man went down.

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