Empowering Women through Development Aid: Evidence from a Field Experiment in Afghanistan

Mandating female participation in local governance increases female mobility and involvement in village councils, but does not affect overall perceptions of the role of women in society.


Afghanistan scores very low on the human development index, especially for social indicators pertaining to women. Women in Afghanistan face particularly extreme constraints on their economic, social, and political activities, due to three decades of civil conflict and the strict tribal codes and cultural mores that curtail interactions between unmarried men and women. In rural Afghanistan, women are generally barred from activities outside the household so as to preserve their honor (gheirat), while the principle of purdah dictates that women should be generally hidden from public view. These norms render local governance a strictly male-dominated activity.

Following the ousting of the Taliban in 2001, the government of Afghanistan developed the National Solidarity Program (NSP) as a means to promote rural development in Afghanistan. NSP creates a Community Development Council (CDC) in every village, which has an equal number of men and women elected through universal suffrage. NSP also disburses grants valued at $200 per household (up to $60,000 per village) to support community projects. The CDC is responsible for selecting and managing these projects, such as infrastructure, drinking water facilities, irrigation canals, roads and bridges, and electric generators. At least one of these projects must target women (such as literacy courses or courses in tailoring or embroidery). NSP has been implemented in over 30,000 villages across 361 of Afghanistan’s 398 districts, making it the largest single development program in Afghanistan. This study examines the effects of a NSP on female participation in local governance, female mobility, socialization, economic participation, and the division of household decision-making.


The National Solidarity Program (NSP) in Afghanistan increased female participation in village councils and increased their mobility, but had no measurable effect in the short term on intrahousehold decision-making or attitudes towards the role of women in society.

  • Female local governance activity was higher (1.2 standard deviations) in villages that received NSP than non-NSP villages, as measured by the existence of a village or pan-village women’s council, whether the woman’s council met during the last six months, and whether village women held a meeting with district government over the last year. Villages with the NSP program were 39 percentage points more likely to have a women’s council and to have at least one meeting of that council during the past 6 months, compared to villages without NSP.
  • Male and female respondents in NSP villages were 8 percentage points more likely to report a notable increase in the presence of well-respected women in the community and were 2 percentage points less likely to think that women should play no role in village decision-making, relative to villages without NSP. There was no statistically significant change in the share of respondents who believed that women and men should participate on equal terms in decision-making as a result of the intervention.
  • Although women in NSP villages were not more likely to go out without wearing a burqa, they were 5% more likely to go out without a chaperone, relative to women living in non-NSP villages. They were also 50% more likely to report having someone with whom to discuss and solve problems in the village and were more likely to have attended a meeting with women outside their village or with representatives of the district government.
  • Female respondents in treatment villages were 5 percentage points more likely to have engaged in income generating activities during the past year, which amount to a 15% difference from non-NSP villages. 
  • NSP had no effect on men and women’s views of women’s roles in society, such as whether women should be allowed to work for the government, or whether girls should be allowed to go to school. It also had no effect on women’s decision-making power within households over money or assets.

In short, the NSP project, which mandated female participation in local governance and decision-making of village development projects, increased female mobility and involvement in village councils, but did not affect overall perceptions of the role of women in society.


This study is based on the National Solidarity Program (NSP) implemented in Afghanistan since 2002. The NSP creates a Community Development Council and disburses grants to support development projects. The councils are elected by universal suffrage and are comprised of an equal number of men and women. After a council is formed, the NSP disburses grants, valued at approximately $200 per household, to support development projects selected by the council. Each village is required to subsidize 10 percent of the project costs, which is predominately in the form of labor. Most projects are focused on infrastructure improvements or human capital development. The program requires that at least one of the funded projects in the village targets women, and such projects often entail training courses.

The study is based on the 2007 phase of the NSP program. The sample consists of 500 villages in 10 rural districts in Afghanistan covering over 13,000 respondents. Within the 10 districts, 25 villages were randomly selected as treatment and 25 as control. Villages were clustered based on proximity and matched based on background characteristics. Half the villages were randomly assigned to receive the NSP after a baseline survey was administered in September 2007. The control villages did not receive the NSP until 2012. The follow-up survey was conducted in June and October 2009.

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