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$1,000 for a kebab? Afghan villages fight corruption.

Locals trained by an NGO gather to scrutinize officials' books.

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The Social Audit Committee checked the quality of materials and interviewed laborers to ensure they were paid. They made a taxing two-hour journey to the provincial capital and tracked down the merchants who provided materials for the projects, to check that their prices matched the shura's stated outlay.

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In the public meeting, the committee presented detailed figures on the shura's expenditures. Then, slowly at first, villagers stepped to front of the meeting and questioned the shura on various details.

Their queries ranged from the technical ("How many kilograms of steel were used?") to the social ("Why don't you implement more projects that benefit women?"). For many of the villagers, this was the first time in their lives that they were questioning authority or challenging elected officials.

The Social Audit Committee here found no serious instances of fraud, and the locals largely approved of the shura's work. But this is not always the case. In one village, its committee found that the shura paid nearly $1,000 for a kebab, prompting irate questions.

In another case, a committee uncovered a trip that the shura took to Kabul, where the councilors stayed in a nice hotel, using public funds. The village forced the shura members to agree to stay in modest accommodation on future trips.

Because the commitees present their findings to the public quickly (most audits are completed within days), and because they can appeal to the public if there are any problems, it is difficult for shura members to intimidate the committee.

"This is creating a lot of fear among the shuras," says Muhammad Nabi, a government official in Baghlan province. "It puts objective pressure on the shuras and helps limit abuses of power."

Audits' limited reach

Initiatives to strengthen local governance, such as the social audit program, will be key in helping to build a modern democracy in Afghanistan, says John Dempsey, a legal expert with the United States Institute of Peace, a think tank.

Officials hope the program can one day evolve into more advanced methods of government accountability. In some Latin American countries, for example, cities are involved in "participatory budgeting," where communities collectively decide the municipal budget.

But such innovations might still be a long way off here. Despite the program's successes, those involved say there are still many hurdles to overcome. The AKDN has implemented the program in more than 400 villages, but these are all in the peaceful northern regions.

The ongoing war and precarious security situations in southern and eastern Afghanistan prevent the AKDN and most other aid agencies from operating there. Moreover, some shuras in the north have refused to cooperate in the process.

But Mr. Sarkar says some of these shuras are succumbing to pressure from the community to accept social audits. Many hope that the experience Afghans gain in these audits can be transferred to the southern provinces if the war ends.

"This is our job," says Farzana, a member of the Social Audit Committee here in Kalan Gazar. "We have a responsibility to show all Afghans that we can hold our government accountable."

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