Finding Their Voice: Leveraging Social Media to Promote Civic Engagement in Afghanistan

This blog was originally written by Stephanie Cálves, a former associate in the Democracy and Governance sector with Tetra Tech International Development Services, and was updated by the USAID ISLA team in March 2021. The piece discusses the use of social media to increase citizen engagement and participation in governance in Afghanistan. Across all of its international development projects, Tetra Tech works to ensure that projects are implementing technology that is fit-for-purpose, demand-driven, and builds local capacity. All opinions expressed in this post are the author’s own.

In early 2015, the U.S. government began implementing a new strategy to support the Government of Afghanistan and encourage citizens to take greater ownership of their future. Tetra Tech is an active partner in this effort, working to strengthen local governance across the country with the aim of improving development opportunities and outcomes and fighting corruption.

Working with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Tetra Tech implemented the Initiative to Strengthen Local Administrations (ISLA) project, which aimed to increase citizen engagement and strengthen provincial governance in the areas of financial and development planning and public administration.

Citizen engagement was a key component to achieving these goals, as building the bridge between citizens and public officials in Afghanistan provides a mechanism for accountability and opportunities for the public to influence and advocate for development projects that meet their needs.

"Thanks to the governor and USAID ISLA team… the people can share their issues by Facebook… from their home villages. The people have a lot of economic and security problems. They can’t come to the Provincial Governor’s Office to share their issues to the governor and line departments. It is a chance for them, and we would like to conduct this kind of event [in the future]."

A member of the youth parliament 

In Afghanistan, where even travel for daily tasks can be difficult, connecting citizens to public officials can be challenging. Security issues, geographic challenges, and cultural barriers can make simple acts of democracy—like attending a city council meeting or a town hall—extraordinarily difficult.

The USAID ISLA Project supported Provincial Governors in 16 Afghan provinces to use Facebook Live as a platform to reach a wider community—especially women and youth. Over the course of the project, Provincial Governors held more than 330 town hall meetings and Women and Youth fora, reaching more than 13,000 people. This was a small step towards reaching broader swaths of the public, especially women, youth, ethnic minorities, and other marginalized groups who face social and cultural barriers to engaging with public officials.

The ISLA project built the capacity of local authorities to arrange the Facebook Live Women and Youth Fora across participating project provinces to help address these barriers, and enabling  Afghan women and youth to put their social media skills to use by advocating for issues important to them. With Tetra Tech’s support, as of project close in March 2021, more than four million Facebook users had viewed the live video stream of the events and had engaged in conversation through live chat with local authorities. These conversations allowed citizens’ voices to be heard. During one forum in Laghman in May 2017, local youth from Laghman and other provinces asked questions related to education, the economy, and overall development. The forum was extended from one to two hours due to the number of participants and their enthusiasm, and the forum reached more than 11,000 individuals in total through the live stream and recording of the event.

To extend the virtual reach of these events, ISLA subsequently supported provincial administrations to link these Facebook Live sessions to local FM radio stations. Topics ranged from discussion of educational opportunities for young people to issues related to substance abuse and illegal drug trafficking. In one event in October 2017, ISLA supported the Faryab administration to hold a town hall meeting that focused on youth drug addiction. In the meeting, participants discussed possible ways to address the challenge in their province. During the meeting, members of the public and civil society organization raised a key discussion point of the need for access to treatment and rehabilitation in this province. As a result of the community’s advocacy in this meeting, the Faryab local government managed to admit 40 individuals in need of treatment into the hospital and promised to continue to support access to treatment in the future. As another example, at an ISLA-supported town hall in Faryab province, a disabled woman questioned local officials about the delay of her government benefits, prompting a government commitment to investigate the matter and address the issue. 

These Facebook Live events demonstrated real impact towards the ISLA project’s aim to enable the Afghan Government to improve provincial governance and enhance public service delivery. The project leveraged innovative technologies and social media to allow Afghan constituents to engage with decision-makers to advocate for services and directly hold their government officials accountable. These public forums also provide a venue for officials to report on the progress of development projects, budgets, and policies that are being developed, promoting transparency and providing opportunities for public comment.

With the challenge of COVID-19, using technology as a means for the government to communicate with the public became even more important to ensure that the gains in improving citizens’ participation did not backslide. Tetra Tech continued to leverage the use of technology to reach a wider constituency throughout the project close and has built the capacity of provincial governors so that these fora can continue sustainably.

Through the ISLA project, Tetra Tech supported the people of Afghanistan to actively engage with their representatives and influence decisions about public service delivery. With Tetra Tech’s use of social media technologies like Facebook Live, underrepresented populations were able to interact with their elected leaders and share their concerns like never before.

Stephanie Cálves

Stephanie Cálves

Stephanie Cálves is an associate in the Democracy and Governance sector of Tetra Tech International Development Services and is the project manager for ISLA. She previously served as a Deputy Country Portfolio Director for Program Management in the Center for Leadership and Management at Management Sciences for Health. Stephanie also worked with the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation and Harvard School of Public Health, where she supported organizational development and project management for HIV/AIDS projects in Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, South Africa, Mozambique, Zambia, and Tanzania funded by the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Stephanie has a B.S. in Policy Analysis and Management from Cornell University, a J.D. from Villanova University School of Law, and an M.P.H. from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.