In 2018, prompted by a wave of explosions in Kabul, Sara Wahedi founded Ehtesab, a platform providing the people of Afghanistan with up-to-date information on security incidents in their country. ‘Ehtesab’, stemming from ‘accountability’ in both Dari and Pashto, originally began as an accountability platform, and now enables Afghan citizens to stay informed on the critical incidents as they happen in their city. We had a chat with Wahedi to discuss why providing this digital platform is so important, and the challenges she’s faced when trying to provide sustainable access to security information for the Afghan people.
I believe you have a personal experience that drove you to focus on providing updates on security incidents?
On 08 May 2018, I was walking home from work, at that time as the president’s advisor on social development policy. I heard someone say, ‘his vest isn’t working’. When you’re an Afghan, you hear certain words like that, and you know you’re in a very dangerous situation. So as soon as I heard that, I started running. A few seconds later there was an explosion right behind me. When I got home, I stepped on my balcony and saw the next explosion. An ISIS member infiltrated the Indian Embassy’s visa office. From 11am to 11pm we were in lockdown. But throughout the next day, and even while the explosions were going off, there was no information about what was happening, whether we could leave our homes, and why the roads were blocked. This was a light bulb moment – there needed to be a way for Afghans to get verified information quickly. That was my mission and that is what I’ve been doing ever since.
What challenges have you encountered running the app since the Taliban took over Afghanistan?
One of the most terrifying changes occurred before the collapse of the government. We had a Whatsapp group where everyone working in security from the military, veterans, specialists, contractors, experts, to journalists would share information. This meant that we quickly got a report when an incident happened, which would be up on our platform within about five minutes on average. But after 15 August, that time increased to at least thirty minutes, sometimes even an hour. That’s not very helpful, because that kind of information needs to reach the user as soon as possible. However, all the security experts had left the country, so it was just me and my team of eight.
Getting alerts also became more difficult because people have been terrified to report on Facebook or Twitter. There are also lot of fake names and fake reporters. Before August 2021, we would receive about five reports per day, and now we’re down to maybe one. Most of the team are working from home and are in hiding. That limits our work, because while we would like to take a visible stance against the Taliban, I can’t put my team at risk. There’s a lot of pressure from the international community to use the platform to collate and document human rights violations, but again, this puts my team at great risk.
Having lived in Afghanistan, and working day-to-day documenting security incidents, how do you maintain your resilience in the long-term?
Obviously, it’s difficult to watch a disaster get worse and worse. It’s infuriating because you realise that your hands are tied. So now, we’re trying to deal with our own issues. I think Afghans within the country, and Afghans who are now in the diaspora, have a lot of trauma and anger. I’m trying to build the status quo that Afghans feel they deserve. We want to know from our government what’s going on and if we are safe; access to this information is a human right.
I do get some pushback, people that think I’m not putting my efforts into the right place, which affects my resilience. But there are many examples across the world of innovations like mine that went through this and in the long-term reaped the benefits. I’m looking forward to that, I believe in the mission. So, I think resilience stems from a long-term vision, and believing in this inherent right that Afghans have. It’s difficult, because I can’t really see a finish line, with the Taliban now banning international media. If social media is next, I can’t really do my work. That’s a huge fear of mine, that we’re going to be shut off from the country. So, my resilience is there, but its challenging.
How do you verify your information and avoid falling into the misinformation trap?
The team is constantly monitoring social media, searching for keywords on fire, explosion, Taliban, harassment, things like this. Once they see something, we go to people that we trust to verify the information. Usually, they’re from journalists. Then, we wait. Once someone verifies it, we post the report. If we can’t find a verifier, but multiple Afghans are posting about the same incident, then we may share the alert but highlight that it is unverified. For me, accuracy is more important than timing. This is not an app like Citizen, which listens to 911 dispatches, and sends alerts within minutes. At Ehtesab, we’re crowdsourcing, we’re manually going through the internet. So, our job is infinitely harder.
One of the most commonly used sources of information for Afghans was a Facebook group called Kabul Security Now, but the amount of misinformation shared there was an issue. Someone would see ‘there’s an attack here, let me go this way’, before realising the way they’re heading in is actually dangerous. That’s what we’re trying to mitigate through Ehtesab, so you don’t have to second guess every alert. We get a lot of reports sent to the app itself, which are extremely difficult to verify because people won’t share their names or any information to help verifying their report. One of our main concerns is that if the Taliban feels that Ehtesab is a threat, they could make fake profiles and reports, and if we verified them, we could put people’s lives at risk.
Why do you think it’s so important for people to have access to this kind of security information?
It’s part of alleviating the anxiety that we, as humans, feel daily. For example, in the UK, if there’s an earthquake or a security issue, you can quickly get reliable information. In the West, we take that for granted. In the Global South, especially in fragile states, it becomes part of everyday life that people don’t know what’s going on and must take the risk. That’s not equitable. In December 2019, we did a Kabul city-wide survey and respondents shared that they would like to have a platform that helps them understand what’s going on in their surroundings, if they are safe. I think everyone has a right to wake up and know someone is going to let them know what is going on around them. I’m incredibly passionate about it, because I know what it feels like, I know what my friends and family in Afghanistan feel like. Being able to provide that for Afghans is a huge thing. By offering verified information, we have managed to build trust with our user base. Now people feel safer to send us reports on things like human rights violations, school closures, and house raids. In the Global South, information is sometimes seen as a privilege, but I believe it’s an inherent right.
What could the changes in Afghanistan mean for NGOs’ operational security in the country? Organisations delivering aid in Afghanistan, whether through local nationals or expatriates, must reassess their Security Risk Management (SRM) approach to meet the ever-changing risks and their Duty of Care obligations. In this blog, SRM consultant Daniel Paul looks at how organisations can ensure system-based methods complement community-based approaches to protect their staff in Afghanistan.