Law & Order, Afghan Victims Unit

Letter from Kabul

Afghan film director Saba Sahar directs a scene for a television series in Kabul, May 30, 2011.
Afghan film director Saba Sahar directs a scene for a television series in Kabul, May 30, 2011. (Ahmad Masood / Courtesy Reuters)

Few could have predicted that Afghanistan, widely considered a dead end for development dollars, would host an experiment with the potential to transform how foreign aid is delivered to fragile states. The gambit is seldom acknowledged as such -- most experts have not been paying attention -- yet in the cafés and living rooms of Kabul, it is rather hard to miss.

For the past four years, Afghan television stations have been flooding the country’s airwaves with a steady stream of crime dramas and courtroom documentaries. Although produced by Afghans, the shows have been funded by foreign backers, including the European Commission, the United Nations, and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Today, Afghan broadcasters air a total of six television series and four radio programs in heavy rotation, all with modest production values (think improvised fight scenes on Kabul street corners) that belie their serious purpose. In a country that has known at least three distinct legal systems in the last 20 years, where trust in government authorities remains weak, and where few are familiar with the regular routines of modern justice, the crime series provide twin benefits: offering up a valuable education in civil procedure and engendering popular expectations of equality before the law.

Through their success, the productions are already calling into question some of the West’s central assumptions about development aid in Afghanistan and other post-conflict states. For decades, government agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have largely depended on a standard set of procedures, deploying cadres of Western experts to mold armies of local officials in their own image. In the jargon of development theory, such advisers are meant to increase a state’s “capacity” -- its ability to provide a range of services and protections to its citizens, including a functional legal system. And in Afghanistan, foreign groups have spent untold sums to do just that, turning out thousands of Western-style lawyers, judges, and bureaucrats.

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