Afghanistan’s Corruption Quagmire

Afghan currency: 1000 Afghanis are equal to about $21 US dollars (Afghan government photo)

Transparency International, the organization whose mission is to stamp out corruption worldwide, recently released its annual “Corruptions Perception Index” and Afghanistan scored a 1.3 out of 10 making it the second most corrupt country in the world behind Somalia. Incidentally, the US ranks 19th in the new index with a score of 7.5. Hugo Chavez’ Venezuela is the most corrupt Latin American state with a score of 1.9. Haiti in the Caribbean scores a hair lower at 1.8. New Zealand takes first place with a score of 9.4.

Afghanistan’s horrible record on corruption was no surprise. The Asia Foundation released its 2009 poll results in late October (PDF download link) and found that after the insecurity and the broken economy, particularly the unemployment and lack of basic services, corruption was also a serious concern for Afghans. When respondents were asked to describe corruption in five different areas (daily life, neighborhood, local authorities, provincial government, and Afghanistan as a whole), the responses ranged from 84% to 92% that corruption was a problem (Q-27, ‘Q’ for question).

However, more telling were the ratings that Afghans gave of their contact with officials from ten different government agencies. Afghans were asked if they had to give cash, a gift, or perform a favor in exchange for a government service over the past year and, if so, was it “in all cases, most of the cases, in isolated cases or in no cases?” (Q-29). The government officials in the question included those in the police, army, customs, and the judiciary, as well as municipality officials, state electric and healthcare officials, those administering official documents or handling admissions to schools or universities, and those officials that Afghans speak to when applying for a government job.

Roughly half of those polled had no contact with government officials in the last year, but those that did had in most cases a one in two chance of encountering corruption. The poll results reveal that the three most corrupt Afghan officials in order starting with the worst are those officials that Afghans meet when applying for a job, justice department officials, and healthcare officials. These results are ironic because the biggest economic concern among Afghans is unemployment and yet when applying for a government job they have a roughly 50% chance of having to pay money to get it. Moreover, and just as ironic, it is the Justice Department that is supposed to play a critical role in fighting corruption, yet that is where some of the worst corruption is to be found. The least corrupt officials are in the Afghan Army. Afghans that have contact with army officials have a one in four chance at encountering corruption.

USAID released an insightful report in early 2009 on corruption in Afghanistan entitled “Assessment of Corruption in Afghanistan” (or ASA, PDF Download link). The ASA divides the corruption in Afghanistan into three categories. The first is “grand corruption”, which is the kind committed by top government officials and generally involves large amounts of money. Top officials are paid well so their motive in corruption is greed. The large inflows of foreign aid into Afghanistan and the opium trade are also implicated in grand corruption.

The obvious problem with grand corruption is that millions of dollars (the equivalent) are misdirected away from the needy Afghan public to enrich a small group of public officials who in theory have their government positions to help their country. However, grand corruption also stokes the fires of disenfranchisement. It reinforces the notion for those who may not be part of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s coalition that the government is not serving all Afghans but only a select few, and traditionally when this occurs in Afghanistan, the disenfranchised party (-s) withdraws from the political process and takes up arms against the government. Also, the Taliban and other insurgents are likely to use the existence of grand corruption to justify their cause and advertise for new recruits.

The ASA points out that cleaning up grand corruption poses a political problem for President Karzai because pursuing corrupt political leaders –particularly warlords- may cost him the political backing of those leaders’ supporters. The same will also apply if the Karzai government attempts to prosecute past war crimes. Currently, President Karzai has refused to sign the arrest warrants for three cabinet officials accused of corruption (he did sign warrants for two others) despite recent assurances to the Obama administration of his intent to fight corruption (see story). This is a development to watch closely because if the names of these suspected corrupt officials get identified then it might indicate the degree of political pressure that President Karzai is under by revealing the particular constituency that he fears losing.

The second type of corruption is mid-level (or middle management) corruption. The ASA believes that Afghanistan’s mid-level officials, who are paid well, genuinely want to fight corruption but lack the authority “to make substantive changes.”

The third type of corruption in Afghanistan comes from low ranking staff, such as clerks, who have substantial direct contact with the public but are paid low salaries. Such low-level government workers unofficially function as “gate keepers” to government services. We can assume that Afghanistan’s low level corruption functions much as corruption does in other developing countries. An Afghan needing to see a doctor, for instance, would need to first meet with a low-level administrative hospital staff member (a gate keeper). If the hospital worker is looking for a bribe, he or she might tell the person needing to see the doctor that the doctor is very busy and might not be available for the rest of the day. This would signal to the sick person to give a bribe so that the hospital worker will forward the sick person’s case to the doctor. This is the sort of corruption that the average Afghan repeatedly confronts when seeking government services.

So out-of-control is the corruption in Afghanistan that the ASA reports that some people looking for jobs with the government actually get their jobs by paying bribes with borrowed money. Once in their new job, they use their new government position to get bribes in order to pay back the money that they borrowed to get the job in the first place.

The ASA notes that Afghans strongly condemn grand corruption; however, the low-level corruption just described is surprisingly tolerated to some degree even though it substantially cuts into personal and family budgets. As the report states, there is “widespread understanding” that “…survival strategies of low-level public officials require additional funds beyond their small salaries, and the poor, weak clients may have no alternative than to give a small bribe” (ASA, p.8).

While grand corruption is greed-based, low-level corruption may to some degree be needs-based. This does not at all justify low-level corruption because such corruption is still exploiting one’s position for financial gain, which is how Transparency International defines corruption. However, it does help us to understand corruption in Afghanistan today. In a developing country that is desperately poor and recovering from three decades of war, the few fortunate ones that work use their meager public salaries to care for the extended family, which may include twenty, thirty, forty people or more.

Regrettably, low-level corruption is not getting the media attention that grand corruption is getting. Many analyses treat low-level corruption as an afterthought, as though it pertains to only a small group of poor people and does not significantly figure into the larger strategic corruption problem. To this type of thinking it must be said that the Afghan economy resembles a triangle where the overwhelming majority of Afghans reside in the large, bottom portion of the triangle, and are decrepitly poor. The rich in Afghanistan are just a small fraction of the population. While grand corruption is deadly serious, so is low-level corruption. If the Afghan government is going to win the people and acquire legitimacy among all Afghans then all forms of corruption must be resisted.

What to do? The ASA recommends strengthening Afghanistan’s institutions and making the laws and processes relating to handling money more transparent. Also, the Obama administration’s recent tactic of using the troop surge as leverage to address corruption was shrewd. It put intense pressure on the Karzai administration to change its ways. All of these steps will help but the reality is that low-level corruption is likely to persist at high levels until the Afghan economy begins to function better. Afghanistan is desperate for jobs and the long-term job outlook will require foreign investment, something that is likely to happen only after the security dilemma and the infrastructure improve. Going after the big fish, or top officials, for corruption is probably more symbolic at this point; however, if successful, this may mean more money getting into the Afghan “formal” economy and this could help create jobs.

Rebuilding the Afghan economy cannot be stressed enough. While it may not be a panacea for all of Afghanistan’s ills, having a job and being able to provide for one’s family has a profound effect. Money in a person’s pocket has a way of exerting inexplicable optimism. It boosts self-esteem and gives hope for tomorrow. It also legitimizes the Afghan government, which needs all the legitimacy it can get especially since the election debacle.