As the conflict in Afghanistan has dragged on, concern has grown over the slow development of democratic governance in the country. Although some improvements have been made, public services remain inadequate. Government policies are lacking or, when put in place, often confusing or contradictory. And above all, corruption is pervasive and pernicious. Transparency International ranks Afghanistan 179th of 180 countries.
The Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit recently released a report on corruption in Afghanistan which raises some crucial issues in the efforts to build good governance in the country. The report is a qualitative report based on 400 individual interviews and 25 focus group discussions conducted throughout Afghanistan. It provides valuable insight in support of the quantitative surveys recently conducted including CIPE’s own Afghanistan Business Survey (see also this ABC poll).
Perhaps the most illuminating finding of the report was the divergent views of corruption between Afghans and the international community. The international community tends to focus on what the report calls ‘grand corruption’ which “occurs where the free market and the state meet. Bribes and favours involve large kickbacks at crucial decision-making points of the public sector, e.g. in the procurement of goods and services, concession for the exploitation of natural resources, etc.” The international community also focuses on ‘corruption within state institutions’ which includes things like buying and selling government positions or facilitation payments.
Afghans on the other hand often view corruption differently. It is the petty or administrative corruption that often concern Afghans the most. These are the payments and extortions they face on a daily basis. Focusing on petty corruption “may well leave out certain types of grand corruption and thus conflict with the priorities of certain parts of the international community.” But the effect on the perception of the fight against corruption will be greatly improved.
Another source of corruption, almost entirely overlooked by the international community, is unjust of locally unacceptable practices of the international community. “Afghans have considered waste of aid money, high salaries of consultants and expatriate Afghans working under special salary regimes with the [Afghan government], the use of expensive white cars, risk bonuses, per diems and expensive guesthouses as corruption.” Efforts to combat corruption by the international community that ignore these local attitudes run the risk of discrediting their efforts. International funds are often seen as the source of the problem rather than the solution. Funds that further alienate the population are likely best unspent.
Although the Afghan political system may be centered in Kabul, the operating power structures in Afghanistan are diffuse and interconnected. There is no single anti-corruption program that will free the Afghan people. Many “forms of corruption used as instruments for political and economic power tend to follow different patterns in different provinces.” The most successful anti-corruption programs will be malleable to local and regional institutions. We will learn a lot through the anti-corruption efforts in Afghanistan and I hope donors will be open to supporting diverse programs. However, simply throwing money at the problem will only further exacerbate the issue.