Regularly ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, Afghanistan has implemented what for it is a novel new program: selecting provincial and district officials on the basis of their skills, rather than connections.
By all accounts, Afghanistan's corruption is endemic at all levels of government. It's hoped the new effort will begin to curb graft, patronage and nepotism in the country's 34 provinces and roughly 360 districts.
Akin to states in the U.S., the provinces each have a governor, but they're appointed by President Hamid Karzai rather than elected. Their deputies and the governors of the lower level districts — roughly like counties — are appointed by an agency called the Independent Directorate of Local Governance.
For years, the agency's recruiting process has been less than transparent. But that has changed. Now governors win their positions by competing in a three-month evaluation process involving written and oral exams. And, in true Afghan style, a change like this required a grand swearing-in ceremony with speeches — and lots of them.
For nearly four hours, top public officials gathered in a gaudy hotel function hall in Kabul and decried corruption as they praised the latest group of deputy and district governors.
Afghanistan's second Vice President Karim Khalili said he hopes these new officials will alleviate what he called the pain of corruption, and bring good governance and positive change to the provinces.
Finally, 17 deputy provincial governors and 52 district governors took the oath of office. They join the 15 deputies and 140 district governors who took office over the last year under the new system.
A New Female Governor
Sahera Shekeib outscored two other candidates in her district in Jawzjan province in northern Afghanistan. She's now the first female district governor in the country. There is also one female provincial governor, who is a political appointee in Bamiyan province.
Shekeib says that Afghan women have suffered for the last three decades.
"By seeking this position I paved a way to heal the pain of our mothers and sisters and help the upcoming generation," she says.
Shekeib has been working in different government offices for several years. Under the new system, a bachelor's degree and at least three years of work experience are required to become a district governor.
"So, I think we have a validation of why they're there and it certainly increases the legitimacy of their work," says Renaud Meyer. He is senior deputy country director for the U.N. Development Program, which helped implement the new recruiting process in collaboration with the Afghan government.
The program also includes sending the governors to France and India for additional training. But, one of the questions is how offices staffed with people used to the patronage system will respond to the new governors.
"I think ultimately one has to rely on the genuine belief that what people want is good public service delivery and I think it will be very difficult for those old, traditional systems to win over efficient and productive delivery of services," Meyer says.
It remains to be seen whether the new provincial officials can bring greater efficiency. The program calls for monitoring and an annual review of their performance. A big test will come with Afghanistan's 2014 presidential election.
"Obviously as we get nearer to the election time a lot of games and political influence will be played," Meyer says, "and we'll see how those who have been going through this merit-based recruitment will resist."
For now, the focus is on getting the rest of the deputy and district governors recruited and in place by the end of the year.
NPR's Aimal Yaqubi contributed to this story.