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.

Increasing the supply of legal services, however, never guaranteed that Afghans would actually use them. Today, research suggests that most Afghans in search of justice, particularly in the country’s rural areas, choose to avoid the new legal system altogether, turning instead to ad hoc elders’ councils, mullahs, shuras (community forums), and local strongmen. Especially when it comes to criminal matters, some Afghans tend to see these informal systems as more efficient and decisive than those run by civil servants. In avoiding government courts, these Afghans have little incentive to demand that decisions are timely, accessible, and fair. 

That is not to say that Afghanistan has not made any progress; despite constant reports of bribery, intimidation, and influence peddling, the country’s formal civil code, enshrined in the 2004 constitution, has gradually taken hold in certain urban areas, such as Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif. Yet even that achievement represents a rather modest dividend on the investment it required in blood, treasure, and time.

By contrast, comparatively paltry investments in Afghan television and its imaginary courtrooms have yielded proportionately higher returns. By providing compelling examples of Afghans who exercise their civic rights and hold their state accountable, Kabul’s scriptwriters and journalists are tackling the demand problem head on, motivating citizens to lay claim to the laws and protections so doggedly championed by rule-of-law organizations.


Immediately following the Taliban’s defeat in 2002, Western countries invested heavily in Afghanistan’s basic infrastructure, including its television stations. Freed from Taliban censures, a number of Kabul networks used U.S. funding to begin rebroadcasting foreign soap operas. The shows found quick success; in surveys, Afghan viewers noted their preference for Turkish series, such as Forbidden Love, for their focus on conflicts between modern values and Islamic law. Latin American soaps, such as A Woman’s Glance, also earned high marks, owing to their portrayals of corruption, drug trafficking, and intra-generational clan feuds.

It was not until 2010, however, that several Afghan broadcasters began producing their own crime dramas. With backing from the U.S. State Department, Tolo TV launched two series that aimed to improve public perceptions of policemen: Eagle Four, an action-packed cop show about a rough but sympathetic police officer, and Defenders, which follows an efficient and incorruptible SWAT team led by an Afghan version of the legendary FBI agent Eliot Ness. Two years later, the European Union’s Afghanistan police mission provided funding for another broadcaster to produce Commissar Amanullah, a series about a female police commissioner who fights kidnappers as she confronts gender discrimination among her fellow officers. And to reach a more rural audience -- most of Afghanistan’s roughly 100,000 televisions are located in urban areas  -- the U.S. Institute of Peace, among others, invested in radio programming. One Village, A Thousand Voices, a biweekly radio drama created by the USIP, portrays young villagers who navigate sensitive legal dilemmas in the present day.

Perhaps the most bracing television series has been Crime Scene Afghanistan, a weekly half-hour show developed jointly by the United Nations’ Afghanistan mission and the country’s national broadcaster, Radio Television Afghanistan, in 2007. They tasked the show’s producer, the Dutch-Iranian documentary filmmaker Shoresh Kalantari, to provide the country’s reporters and producers with on-the-job training. So Kalantari focused on investigative reporting, especially on matters of justice -- something new for a country with a vibrant press but little crime reporting.

What makes Crime Scene compelling also makes it difficult to watch: its portrayal of victims and perpetrators whose old belief systems collide with new civil codes. In one episode, which focused on the conviction of police officers for gang-raping a young woman in northern Afghanistan, the blurred face of the victim bewailed on camera that justice had not been served. Her stance, however, was traditional: Her honor demanded that either the police died or that she did.

Early on, Kalantari’s small crew drew on Afghan police sources for story ideas. But after the show aired too many negative (and accurate) depictions of police malfeasance, officials froze out Kalantari. The director subsequently turned to reconstructing incidents of corruption, murder, rape, and kidnapping through interviews with the accusers and the accused, as well as extensive courtroom footage. In a single episode, viewers can follow the full loop of their country’s new legal system -- from the crime scene to the courtroom, followed by a post-trial analysis by a panel of legal experts.

With a large base of committed followers, Crime Scene has even affected the outcomes of the cases it covered. In 2011, the show reported on a 19-year-old woman who had been raped by her cousin’s husband two years earlier in the central highland city of Bamiyan. Once pregnant, the young woman was arrested for having premarital sex. The judge’s sentence, which sent the victim and the attacker to jail for the same crime -- adultery by force -- clearly disregarded existing laws. And sure enough, human rights groups denounced the outcome in a flurry of press releases and, to no avail, lobbied the authorities. For a time, however, the judgment stood, and the woman gave birth to her daughter in prison. It was not until Crime Scene ran an episode about the case that a groundswell of popular anger led Afghan President Hamid Karzai to pardon her (within just a few days after the show’s airing). By putting a human face on such misapplications of the law, Crime Scene addressed an injustice that a decade of state building had failed to prevent.

When Western legal technicians are asked about these programs, they typically dismiss them as peripheral and propagandistic -- a sideshow to the serious business of institutional state building. Yet audience surveys suggest that the shows have made a powerful impression. In comparing their own police, lawyers, and judges to the more virtuous ones on television, viewers have expressed hopes for a cleaner and more efficient justice system with a new sense of urgency. And after each episode of Crime Scene, producers receive hundreds of phone calls asking the authorities to look into the violations highlighted on the show.


Using television and radio programming to achieve development goals is not altogether new, particularly in the domains of children’s health and post-conflict reconciliation. UNICEF has long relied on so-called entertainment-education tactics, funding radio soap operas in India that promote reproductive health and mobile movie theaters in Africa that screen popular films preceded by short educational spots. The organization considers such programs critical to its on-the-ground work in immunization, education, and sanitation. The nonprofit Search for Common Ground, which focuses on post-conflict resolution, has also embraced such practices, funding, among other programs, a Nigerian television drama in 2008. Yet many publicly funded organizations still rarely venture into educational entertainment.

More than ten years since the fall of the Taliban, Western rule-of-law advisers still outnumber Afghan lawyers in scattered parts of the country. The country’s lawyers, activists, and officials say that donors regularly cajole them into attending tedious multi-day seminars; last year, international organizations sent a contingent of them to Europe for instruction in civil procedure and for a course on conflict resolution. In Kabul, for instance, various other rule-of-law groups run workshops on mediation, legal theory, legal ethics, advanced civil procedures, women’s rights, human rights law, and property rights. Such groups coordinate their work on occasion, but turf battles abound. Spend time with practitioners and one notices a lot of repetition; all told, they remain narrowly focused on boosting the supply of trained lawyers, civil servants, and other elites.

Although Afghanistan’s functionaries have certainly benefited from the training provided by Western governments and NGOs, many in-country experts say that a majority of Afghans remain deeply ignorant of how their legal system actually works. Last year, the results of a survey conducted by the Asia Foundation suggested that Afghans who were confident that a guilty party would be punished were significantly more likely to report incidents of crime and violence. Yet most aid organizations still treat the demand side of the law as an afterthought. When groups that have given workshops on, say, women’s rights, they often produce trite newsletters and sloganeering banners, putting little effort into crafting messages that will resonate with local communities.

Yet Kabul’s crime shows suggest that, with the right message, many more Afghans might feel they have a stake in the country’s formal legal system. For all their good intentions, foreign experts generally remain wedded to the world of workshops and high-level reports -- formats that, like Afghanistan’s nascent institutions, remain out of most Afghans’ reach. And the problem is not unique to the law -- many other domains of development have missed out on the opportunity to use compelling media content to effectively forward their goals. Perhaps the country's fictional criminals, then, may eventually have an influence outside Afghanistan, as well -- spurring a critical realignment of international resources.

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  • DORN TOWNSEND is an editorial coordinator of Stability: The International Journal of Security and Development. From 2011 to 2013, he served as a Public Information Officer at the United Nations.
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