As the time approaches for Afghans to vote on 9 October to chose their first-ever elected president, the voter education campaign being run by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) for Afghan refugees in Pakistan is in full swing.
"Our voter educational strategy includes community meetings, radio and TV broadcasts and the distribution of voter educational material," Maurizio Giuliano, the regional reporting officer of the IOM's Out of Country Registration and Voting (OCRV) exercise, told IRIN in the northern city of Peshawar.
For the vast majority of Afghans, this will be the first time that they are voting in a democratic election. Through extensive public awareness campaigns, the IOM intends to inform Afghans of their right to vote, and encourage female participation in particular.
"Our educational campaign is aimed at, firstly, letting people know that there is an election; secondly, letting people know the long terms benefits of elections, why they are encouraged to vote, and certain issues such as the equality of men and women etc; and thirdly, to let them know the procedures to be followed for registration and polling," Giuliano said.
Giuliano said that the IOM voter education campaign approached the targeted community in four main ways. The agency has recruited over 600 community mobilisers, working in teams of two, in each country.
"We've organised over 500 voter education gatherings in NWFP alone that have been attended by an estimated 63,000 people, of which 26,500 were women and 36,500 men," Giuliano said, adding, "Our community mobilisers have talked to ordinary people in gatherings and also to community leaders, targeted religious figures - anyone who could help us in spreading information across to the voters."
The response from the Afghan community during the meetings, according to the IOM voter education officers, has been very good and encouraging, especially from the female population.
"The second means we've relied on is the media, by using advertising in the local newspapers and the radio - to get the message across," the IOM OCRV regional officer said. Vans covered with posters and with loudspeakers strapped to their roofs have also been driven through Afghan settlements, informing people of their right to vote as part of the IOM awareness raising strategy.
"The third thing is the distribution of materials talking about the polling procedure. Up to now we've distributed over 1,000 flip charts, over 40,000 posters, over 245000 flyers, over 10,000 tapes and over 500 handbooks," Giuliano said. The voter educational posters, printed in Dari and Pashto, have been plastered on the walls of shops and in markets with concentrations of Afghans that illustrate the entire electoral process.
"And the fourth and final part of our voter education strategy is a helpline, which we've exclusively set up to give people information about the elections," Giuliano said. The IOM officer said that Afghans could call the number free of charge from any landline in Pakistan and receive information about the registration and polling procedures, and any other issues involved. The IOM has also created a website regarding the Afghanistan OCRV.
Under the criteria determined by the Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), everyone is eligible provided that they are an Afghan citizen, they left Afghanistan after 1979, and they are 18 or above on the day of the election.
"Each registrant will be required to confirm his/her Afghan nationality and eligibility to participate in the election, and then each will receive a registration receipt to be presented on polling day," Seema Ahmed, a community mobiliser told IRIN in Peshawar.
The IOM's voter education campaign includes information only about the importance of voting and election procedure. "We are not informing voters about the candidates. It is up to the candidates themselves, and their respective groups and parties to make themselves known to the population," Giuliano said.
"We [IOM] have got US $21 million for the first election in Pakistan and Iran and then $5 million more if there is a run-off election in November," Darren Boisvert, the IOM OCRV media officer, told IRIN in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.
The IOM has been entrusted with the task of conducting the out of country Afghan election on the behalf of the JEMB and UNAMA.
"IOM is the sole implementing agency for this project [OCRV]. No other NGO is involved in terms of implementation because, following the 1996 agreement between UNDP and IOM, we became an implementing agency ourselves," IOM OCRV regional officer Giuliano said.
Giuliano explained: "We've used local facilitators, we've relied on the help of certain NGOs as regards logistical issues, as regards human resources and as regards a number of other operational details. We've received a lot of help from NGOs."
However, the IOM regional officer said that there is no kind of formal involvement as such. "Above 20 to 30 NGOs are helping us as regards the voter education campaign, disseminating voter education materials and talking to the community etc. We have also received cooperation in distributing flyers, leaflets and things like that," Giuliano said.