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Successful Cities at the Community Level

Oct 8, 2004

By Theresa Poppelwell, Regional Programme Manager of the UNDP/UNCHS Programme on Rebuilding Communitites in Urban Afghanistan

The UNCHS programme in Afghanistan, with a budget of approximately US$1.7 million, is not the largest Habitat programme around. However, with over 50 projects underway and activities ranging from community development to shelter construction, and from solid waste management to vulnerability relief, it can certainly lay claim to being the most comprehensive.

But then if Habitat's programme in Afghanistan is unique, so too is its working environment. In a country ravaged by twenty-two years of continuous conflict, it is not just the roads and water supply systems that are in need of repair. Along with its urban infrastructure, the state's service systems have also collapsed, and the very fabric of its society is frayed and threadbare. Isolated infrastructure reconstruction in Afghanistan would therefore be akin to treating a bullet wound with a band-aid: superficial, unsustainable, and completely ineffective.

As noted in the Habitat Agenda, a prerequisite for sustainable urban rehabilitation is the active commitment of the local community. Galvanise the residents and the feat is half accomplished. Again, however, the situation in Afghanistan is not quite so simple. With no recognised government, UNCHS is without its natural counterpart. Moreover, without even a structured civil society to work with, Habitat was forced to create one. And so the concept of the 'Community Forum' was born.

In its simplest form, a Community Forum (CF) is a district level organisation, established with the investment of a seed grant into the community. This grant is designed to kick-start a number of small community enterprises. Funds generated from these businesses are then ploughed back into the Forum to cover its overheads and the operating costs of a variety of social services, including education courses, health clinics, hand pump maintenance and solid waste collection projects. As with all decision-making in a CF, these services are determined through a process of community consultation, and in order to foster a greater sense of group responsibility, any assets obtained by the Forum become the property of the community as a whole. The governance structure of a Community Forum includes a permanent management team, working under the guidance of a nominated 'Consultative Board' that consists of a cross-section of respected community members. Finally, at the core of the system is a regular community-wide meeting, ensuring that the entire process is accountable to those it belongs to.

More than just a physical location, therefore, a Community Forum is a multi-dimensional process, the embodiment of sustainable urban rehabilitation. Its regular community meetings and emphasis on consultation provide a mechanism for drawing together urban residents to discuss local issues and seek out appropriate solutions. Moreover, its structured organisational systems and democratic set-up provide a preliminary stage for local governance. Finally, rooted as it is in the broader community, a CF provides a viable channel for aid agencies to work through, putting reality into the rhetoric of "community consultation".

First established just five years ago, the CF network in Afghanistan now consists of over seventy Forums in various stages of development. Of course, in reality the practice in rarely as straightforward as the theory. Sometimes, even, it seems that this considerable undertaking is causing more problems than it is actually solving. But then the process, instilled from its inception with the ability to grow and learn, is still evolving. Moreover, it is persevered with in recognition of the fact that, as stated in the Habitat Agenda "the actors who will determine success or failure in improving the human settlements condition are mostly found at the community level".

It is only by taking this integrative, holistic approach that UNCHS Afghanistan can even begin to achieve its gargantuan task of "urban rehabilitation". A Community Forum places emphasis on people, on their role in resolving their own problems and maintaining their cities for themselves. It is only when accompanied by community responsibility and ownership that reconstruction/infrastructure projects can really have a sustained effect, making them worthy of the word 'development'. What, after all, is the point of building a road no one feels compelled to maintain, or clearing a mountain of solid-waste only to have it reappear in within a matter of months? Urban development and local governance are permanent problems, and as such they deserve permanent solutions.

Profile of a Community Forum

Located in Kabul's District 1, Maiwand Community Forum was established by UNCHS in 1998 with a grant of US$ 9,900. The Forum's manager, Mr. Sayed Mozafari, describes the aims of the CF as twofold: to promote peace and coexistence within the community, and to support the population in achieving self-reliance.

This Forum supports a variety of activities. With the technical and financial assistance of UNCHS and ICRC, the community has reconstructed 1,224 private latrines, and is responsible for the upkeep of 63 handpumps across the district. The CF management team is also in contact with the Ministry of Water and Power in an effort to solve the severe shortages faced by local residents, and in addition has plans to rehabilitate a number of culverts in the locality.

On the community service side, Maiwand Forum manages a subsidised bakery, distributing bread to over 300 vulnerable families every day. The community has also established a school for children in Grades 1-3, and through its income generating activities the CF has created jobs for several dozen previously unemployed skilled labourers. Finally, under an ECHO funded relief programme, the Forum organised a distribution of saplings to residents of the district.
PS 06.05.01

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