|Employees of the Afghan Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock "clock in" for the day on a handwritten ledger. Photo: Noor Seddiq
By Leigh Stephens and Lisa Chensvold
For the staff of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock in Kabul, “clocking in” to work each day was a burdensome, time-consuming endeavor that involved standing in line for a long as 45 minutes to sign in on a handwritten attendance ledger. The same process was repeated at the end of the day.
After years of conflict and instability, inefficiencies like this are unfortunately all too common in Afghanistan. At the agriculture ministry, the problems were systemic, wasting hours of productive employee time and ultimately rendering the ministry unable to achieve its primary purpose: delivering critical agricultural services to farms and farmers throughout Afghanistan. Almost 80 percent of Afghanistan’s population, or about 25 million people, depend on agriculture for their livelihood, and the ministry’s cumbersome and outdated procedures were posing a huge barrier to Afghanistan’s ability to recover economically from a decade of conflict.
Changing a Ministry from the Inside Out
Although the agriculture ministry’s efficiency and management problems were significant, there was a desire for change. In 2008, the Afghan government released the Afghanistan National Development Strategy, a five-year plan to improve the country’s security, governance, and economy. The plan placed particular emphasis on the agricultural sector, calling on the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock to better serve this sector.
With support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, IESC partnered with the ministry to modernize and streamline its internal systems and improve overall management. In an environment as complex as Afghanistan, it was important to inspire change from the inside out, and IESC had a unique approach.
“Institution building is not an easy task. The only way you can build [an institution] is to be embedded, working together side by side,” said Noor Seddiq, who returned to Afghanistan after more than 20 years in the United States to serve as the deputy in-country director of the Capacity Building and Change Management Program.
IESC’s locally-led program team assembled a crew of more than 200 “change management specialists” who were embedded in the ministry itself. These highly skilled Afghan nationals worked one-on-one with civil servants at the ministry to provide on-the-job training and mentoring.
The change management specialists were key to creating system-wide change, and it all started with listening. The specialists established a rapport with the staff and heard how their jobs were impacted every day by inefficient processes. The program responded with interventions in the most critical areas, such as financial management, human resources, policy, planning, and program management. The specialists worked closely with staff to provide training and ensure that the changes were fully adopted.
Equipped for the Digital Era
The program focused on leveraging technology that would increase transparency and improve communication between the ministry and the farmers it served. One of the first improvements was replacing the traditional handwritten sign-in ledgers with a thumb print e-attendance system, a single intervention that reaped a number of benefits.
“It used to take over a week to process a payroll report, but with the electronic attendance system, now we are able to print the report in less than half a day,” said Mohammed Hotak, director of human resources at the ministry.
This reduction in payroll time, combined with the dramatically reduced time spent standing in line to sign in and out, translates into many hours of additional productivity across the ministry’s more than 1,000 Kabul-based employees. Furthermore, the e-attendance system resulted in a higher level of transparency and accountability for absences.
Over the course of the program, which ran from 2010 to 2014, IESC worked to replace many more similarly outdated processes and systems. A new automated inventory system reduced theft and increased accountability. When the program ended, nearly 10,000 items were entered into the inventory system. The ministry suffered from frequent power outages, and the program installed an automatic generator that keeps the ministry up and running 24 hours a day. And, because the new electronic systems needed good IT infrastructure, the program installed fiber optic cable which increased internet speeds at the ministry by eight times.
Reaching Rural Farmers
The true success of IESC’s work with the ministry will be measured in improved services to farmers. In a country where millions of livelihoods depend on agriculture, an inefficient ministry with unreliable service delivery is simply not an option.
As a result of the changes and improvements made at the ministry in Kabul, many staff positions have been moved to the provincial level, which means more extension agents working directly with farmers in rural regions.
“In past years, we did not know when to grow,” said Anjila Azimi, a farmer in the village of Saraye Khowaja. The farmers had been planting in March and never got a good harvest. The program improved services at the district level and helped Azimi access better seeds and greenhouse technology.
“Our harvest has increased, and we are making progress,” Azimi said.
This provincial-level support is key to boosting Afghanistan’s agricultural sector. In late 2014, IESC again partnered with the ministry for a follow-on program, the Capacity Building and Change Management II Program. Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the current program takes the approach of the first program and expands it out to out to the district-level offices, where better management and increased efficiencies will have an even more direct benefit for farmers.
“We are privileged to be continuing this collaboration and partnership with the ministry to help more civil servants do their jobs better,” said Chad Ford, associate vice president for economic growth programs at IESC and director of the new program. “More of Afghanistan’s farmers will have access to information and services that meet their needs into the future.”