The Western World is aware that international assistance is required to help rebuild less developed countries – providing institutional reform and capacity building that will, in turn, create a more democratic state. Unfortunately, there is a lack of awareness of what it takes to make these systems work in the different cultural settings. This is especially the case with Afghanistan, which is years behind in progress due to 35 years of conflict, and which struggles to maintain the proper equipment, electricity, literacy and so on needed for success.
Afghanistan is going through a critical period with the combination of the military drawdown and a transition to a new government leader. Therefore, international donor approaches should be realigned to coincide with this changing environment. In order to do this, it is important to speak with the Afghans who will, ultimately, be responsible for protecting their citizens and providing justice on a daily basis. In a recent report by USIP titled Rethinking Afghan Local Governance Aid After Transition, Francis Brown (2014) suggests that now is the time to reconsider donor approaches in order to ensure a successful transition in Afghanistan. In this report, Brown emphasises the need not only to re-examine top-down approaches in international aid, but to also consider bottom-up approaches simultaneously. It is the bottom-up approach, which the international community should recognise is the key to understanding the culture and what is needed for reform measures to be effective. Many scholars have studied the country – they understand the politics, they understand the culture, and they make recommendations for change. However, there may be a difference in the goals of the international community and those of the Afghan people.
For this reason, I have dedicated the last year of my life to understanding perceptions of the criminal justice system in Afghanistan from the perspective of those who are directly involved in the training – including Afghan trainees in criminal justice and their Western trainers. My research involves taking a closer look at criminal justice training programmes in Afghanistan, specifically police officers, lawyers and judges in training. I want to understand what the Afghan trainees believe to be the root of the problem and what they feel is needed most by the international community rather than how Westerners evaluate this. Therefore, I conducted interviews with Western trainers and I arranged for structured interviews in a written format to be distributed throughout Afghanistan, where Afghan trainees would be given an opportunity to speak their mind. I created questions about the rapport and the usefulness of the training and provided them with an opportunity to open up, and anonymously report what they felt was useful and what was lacking in the training and mentoring programmes. I posed questions such as ‘What do you see in the value of international aid?’, ‘What are the challenges you face in delivering justice?’ and ‘What recommendations do you have in order to overcome these challenges?’.
Tailoring training needs
With this research, I want to understand what prevents reform in transitional countries, such as Afghanistan, from progressing. If the international community opens the channels of communication with the individuals who are perhaps not the decision-makers or the leaders of the country, but rather the ones who are providing justice on a day-to-day basis, perhaps training and reform measures can be tailored to fit the needs of their local community and culture.
After hearing from numerous Afghans in the criminal justice sector and from their Western mentors, it is clear that it will take more than money, education, security and training to overcome the issues facing their criminal justice system. While this is, of course, a good start, successful reform requires participant buy-in. The individuals responsible for helping their country progress must first understand the importance of reform, and contribute to it by speaking up about their needs – whether it is based on training methods, topics or the cultural/religious needs for reform.
I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to talk with numerous individuals involved in the criminal justice reform and even more privileged to have been able to obtain the thoughts and perceptions from many Afghan trainees – including police officers, lawyers and judges. I hope research of this sort can be expanded to other areas of reform and spark interest in the international community to seek out more answers from the bottom.
*Lindsey Murray  has been studying an MPhil in Criminological Research. Photo credit: Salvatore Vuono and www.freedigitalphotos.net.