Afghanistan Institute for Civil Society – 4 Things You Need to Know

The government of Afghanistan is working hard to establish political and economic stability and to build a better, brighter future for its citizens. This challenging task is not something it can achieve alone.

Afghan non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs),both local and national, have an important role to play in supporting the government’s efforts. These entities are helping to bridge the gap between the Afghan population and the state. This is particularly the case when it comes to matters like the delivery of priority programs,the creation of better governance structures, and advocacy for vulnerable and under served groups.

However, CSOs in Afghanistan also face a number of hurdles, notably financial and capacity gaps and a frequent lack of public trust. It was to help address these challenges that the Afghanistan Institute for Civil Society (AICS) was established in 2015.

The goal of AICS is to contribute to a stronger, more robust civil society in Afghanistan.It accomplishes this goal by raising the credibility of the civil society sector (including domestic NGOs and CSOs), engaging in dialogue and advocacy around civil society policy, and strengthening philanthropic efforts.

Read on to learn more about this important organization.

1. The launch of AICS is the result of nearly a decade of planning.

Although AICS was not officially established until 2015, the seeds of the organization were planted nearly a decade earlier.  In 2007, through the efforts of a number of entities—including the government of Afghanistan, the Aga Khan Development Network, the World Bank, the United Nations Development Program, and the Asia Development Bank—an Enabling Environment conference was held in Kabul.

The impetus behind the conference was to identify practical measures by which Afghanistan could create an environment that would facilitate progress and development. As a result, the country could move from a climate of fragility to one of confidence in a strong future.

One of the most important recommendations to emerge from the conference was the creation of an independent body to review and provide certification for CSOs.  Such an entity would improve their recognition by government agencies, the private sector, and donor organizations.

The conference recognized the importance of CSOs to the successful development of Afghanistan. However, it was acknowledged that many CSOs, due to the challenges mentioned above, fell short of achieving their full potential. Thus, after extensive consultations with relevant stakeholders, AICS was launched in February of 2015.

2. NGO certification is AICS’ flagship program.

Given its mandate to support a credible and competent civil society sector in Afghanistan, AICS focuses most of its efforts on its flagship certification program for CSOs. The certification program involves assessing and evaluating Afghan CSOs against a number of key standards.

Entities are evaluated on key areas like internal governance, strategic management, program delivery, and financial management. Additionally, these standards are locally defined and internationally recognized.

In total, there are 66 standards involved in certification. CSOs are certified by AICS after a comprehensive process which includes an eligibility test, a desk review, and a field assessment visit. As of August 2018, 34 Afghan CSOs have earned AICS certification.

3. There are many benefits to becoming an AICS-certified NGO.

By participating in the AICS certification process, entities demonstrate that their policies and activities are aligned with international best practices.  Certification also means local NGOs and CSOs enjoy many valuable benefits.  These include: better organizational capacity and performance; additional influence in policy dialogues due to improved credibility; opportunities to build long-term funding relationships with private sector partners and international donors; and greater trust among their constituencies as a result of improved accountability and transparency.

In addition, CSOs that are certified by AICS have the opportunity to join the certified CSOs Working Group. This group works to increase the effectiveness of individual CSOs and to improve the civil society sector as a whole by providing opportunities for members to connect with each other and share knowledge and experiences. Members of the Working Group meet once every quarter for mutual support and exchange.

4. AICS is one of the driving forces behind National Civil Society Week.

In addition to its CSO certification work, AICS organizes other activities and events that aim to strengthen Afghanistan’s civil society sector. One of the most important recent initiatives spearheaded by AICS was National Civil Society Week. This event was celebrated in Herat province in late June, 2018.

National Civil Society Week was an unprecedented gathering of more than 150 CSOs, individual activists, government and private sector representatives, media members, and academics from across Afghanistan. The aim of the event was, in many ways, to continue the conversation begun in 2007 at the Enabling Environment conference.

That is, it was intended to provide an open space for participants to reflect on, learn about, and collaborate on issues relating to the development of a robust civil society sector in Afghanistan. Specific events that took place as part of National Civil Society Week included panel discussions, presentations from international speakers, a celebration of CSO success stories, an educational theater production, and an award ceremony for newly-AICS-certified CSOs.

What’s New at the UNESCO Office in Kabul?

Since it was re-opened in 2002, the UNESCO Office in Kabul has been working with the government of Afghanistan and a variety of local and international partners and stakeholders to build Afghanistan’s capacity in the areas of education,culture, communication and information, and natural and social sciences. In pursuit of this goal, the Office oversees a broad range of programs and events across these focus areas, all designed to enrich thelives of Afghan citizens and contribute to a stronger future for their country.

Some of the most recent offerings from the UNESCO Office in Kabul include the following:

Workshop on Intangible Cultural Heritage

Cultural heritage involves more than monuments and collections of objects. It also includes traditions and living expressions (e.g., oral traditions, rituals,social practices, festive events, and performing arts, as well as the knowledge and skills involved in the production of traditional crafts) that cultural groups have passed down to their descendants for generations. UNESCO refers to this body of traditions as “intangible cultural heritage” (ICH), and the question of how to safeguard these practices is of growing concern in the face of globalization.

Image by Unesco Headquarters Paris | Flickr

In October 2018, UNESCO and Afghanistan’s Ministry of Information and Culture organized a community-based workshop on the topic of preserving and promoting ICH in Afghanistan. Held over four days in the city of Bamiyan, the main goal of the workshop was to train local communities to effectively document,protect, and promote their own ICH practices. The workshop’s attendees included local ICH practitioners and representatives from a variety of organizations,including the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the University of Bamiyan. Over the course of the four days, participants learned about and discussed some of the fundamental theoretical concepts of ICH, assembled an inventory of documented examples of ICH practices in Bamiyan, and conferred about practical measures to safeguard ICH.

Bamiyan Management Plan Workshop

The former site of two massive and ancient open-air Buddha statues, the Bamiyan Valley is one of Afghanistan’s most important World Heritage Sites. However,the property’s fragile archaeological and geological context has also earned it a ranking on the List of World Heritage in Danger. Over the last decade,emergency preservation efforts have been undertaken, but the site is strongly in need of a comprehensive overall management plan, especially now that a variety of development initiatives are currently underway.

To assist with the development of the ambitious plan, UNESCO organized a three-day workshop in Bamiyan to bring together the key stakeholders that manage different areas of development in the region. At the October 2018 workshop,representatives from a variety of government offices—including the ministries of Information and Communication; Development and Housing; Agriculture,Irrigation, and Livestock; and Rural Rehabilitation and Development—came together to discuss how the proposed Bamiyan Cultural Master Plan and the Strategic Master Plan could be harmonized with existing development plans.

Curriculum Reform Workshop Series

Improving the quality of and access to education is currently one of Afghanistan’s top priorities. One of the key policies the country is adopting in pursuit of this goal is an ambitious reform of the national general education curriculum. To date, the UNESCO Office in Kabul has been one of the strongest supporters of the Ministry of Education’s curriculum reform efforts.

In late September 2018, the Office organized a workshop, the first in an intended series of five, to strengthen and advance the reform work that has taken place so far. The workshop series is geared toward the members of the Ministry of Education’s Technical Working Group, and also involves a number of Ministry senior officials. Broad workshop objectives include finalizing the Curriculum Framework for General Education, the Afghan Life Competencies Framework, and the syllabi for a variety of subject areas, as well as developing guidelines and quality assurance frameworks for textbooks and learning resources.

In addition, each of the five workshops will explore an element that is central to the goal of curriculum reform, including student-centered teaching and learning, strategies for active learning, formative assessment, integrating life competencies with particular subject areas, and syllabus mapping and review.


In 2016 UNESCO designated September 28 as the International Day for Universal Access to Information. According to UNESCO, access to information is an essential human right that is necessary for the achievement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. To commemorate this day in 2018, the UNESCO Office in Kabul held an IPDC talks event in early October.

Inspired by TED Talks and organized by UNESCO’s International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC), IPDC talks is a global event series that aims to spark an international discussion of how to foster open societies and create better laws and policies in support of access to information. Speakers at the Kabul IPDC talks event included members of the media and civil society and representatives from Afghanistan’s government and the UN.

Spotlight on the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan

With its thousands of years of history, Afghanistan is home to a remarkable treasure trove of archaeological wealth. Within the country’s borders, incredible examples of protohistoric, Greek, Buddhist, and Islamic sites can all be found, reflecting the rich and complex legacy of Afghanistan’s many peoples and influences.

For nearly a century, the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan (DAFA) has been one of the most important organizations working on the ground to preserve and protect Afghanistan’s exceptional archaeological heritage. In a recent article from CNRS News, DAFA’s director Julio Bendezu-Sarmiento gives readers a unique glimpse into DAFA’s history and current projects in Afghanistan.

Some of the most important takeaways from the article include:


DAFA is the only foreign archaeological team to have a permanent presence in Afghanistan.

Many scientific organizations have left Kabul in recent years due to the instability that continues to affect the city. The fact that DAFA has remained is a reflection of its long history and close ties with Afghanistan.

DAFA was established in 1922 at the request of the Afghan head of state at the time, King Amanullah. Under the original agreement between the French and Afghan governments, DAFA was granted exclusive rights to carry out archaeological excavations in Afghanistan. This changed in the 1960s, when other organizations were permitted to conduct excavations.

DAFA was forced to leave the country during the Soviet occupation and ensuing civil conflict. The organization returned in 2003 and has continued its work ever since. Today, the DAFA headquarters in Kabul are home to offices, a research center, a library of 20,000 books, storerooms, and restoration and photo laboratories.



Image courtesy Jerome Starkey | Flickr


DAFA’s most important current project is the creation of a comprehensive inventory and map of Afghanistan’s archaeological heritage.

In 2014, the government of Afghanistan entrusted DAFA with the mission to produce a comprehensive archaeological map of the country. This document would serve as a detailed inventory of all of Afghanistan’s ancient sites. The goal of this project is to ensure that the Afghan government is able to make fully-informed decisions about prospective development projects—including road construction, urban planning initiatives, and mining—that may impact sites of archaeological importance.

The decision to launch this project was prompted in part by a decade-old controversy. In 2007, the news broke that a Chinese company had acquired the mining and extraction rites to Mes Aynak. This site is roughly 25 miles southeast of Kabul and is home to both the remains of an ancient Buddhist city and one of the world’s largest untapped copper deposits.

The future of the Mes Aynak archaeological site remains uncertain. Fortunately, historical preservationists all around the world have been working hard to save it. Going forward, DAFA’s inventory and mapping project is intended to help prevent similar situations from arising in the future.


DAFA currently relies on remote detection to conduct the majority of its survey work.

There are extensive logistical challenges involved in accessing Afghanistan’s archaeological sites. These include security concerns, extreme weather conditions, and the remote nature of many of the locations. As a result, it’s not feasible for DAFA team members to conduct systemic excavation campaigns in the field.

For this reason, DAFA is assembling its map of archaeological sites with the aid of thousands of drone and aerial photos. These are drawn from a variety of sources, including declassified NATO satellite images and aerial survey photographs taken by Airbus around mining concessions.

It’s a painstaking process. Because ancient Afghan buildings were typically made of mud, their remains are fragile and difficult to spot. In addition, many archaeological sites have been broken into and damaged by looters over the years, making them even more challenging to identify. This means that each photograph must be carefully examined by a trained professional who knows precisely what to look for.


The DAFA inventory has made considerable progress in recent years.

Hundreds of hours of effort have been made by the project’s 20 dedicated team members, most of whom are Afghan researchers and technicians. As a result, DAFA has made considerable progress on the mapping and inventory project over the last few years.

About 1,300 sites had already been discovered and published by the time of the Soviet invasion, when DAFA was forced to leave Afghanistan. Since the current mapping and inventory project was launched in 2014, DAFA has brought to light nearly 5,000 additional sites. The organization emphasizes that the survey is far from complete.

On the map, the sites are color-coded by category. Sites marked in yellow have already been excavated, those marked in blue have been identified but not excavated, and those in red have been only recently discovered and still need to be identified. Eventually, DAFA aims to produce a detailed geographic information system (GIS), in which a database of available site information can be accessed from each point on the map.

Featured Image courtesy Jerome Starkey | Flickr