Karzai’s Kickback

Organised corruption, drug-trafficking, warlords and terrorism. And the most corrupt are those responsible for upholding law and order
Mehru Jaffer Vienna

In Afghanistan, most people seem to fear corrupt officials more than warlords.
According to a report of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), most people in Afghanistan consider corruption their biggest problem, even bigger than security and unemployment. The most corrupt are those responsible for upholding law and order in the country.

Presenting the report at the UNODC headquarters located at the Vienna International Centre (VIC), Antonio Maria Costa, executive director, said that more often than not Afghans are denied civic service jobs if they are unable to cough up bribe money. Costa called on Hamid Karzai to implement the UN convention against corruption which he had pushed so hard to ratify, asking that the 'High Office of Oversight and anti-Corruption' be elevated to an independent, fearless and well-funded anti-corruption authority.

Last year, Afghans paid $2.5 billion in bribe, almost a quarter of Afghanistan's GDP. The amount equals the illicit revenue earned by the opium trade in 2009, making drugs and bribes the two largest income generators in Afghanistan. 

Corruption in Afghanistan is also responsible for encouraging drug trafficking and terrorism. Fifty nine per cent of Afghans admit that corruption is their biggest concern.

The report is based on interviews with 7,600 people in 12 provincial capitals and more than 1,600 villages over a period of one year between 2008 autumn and 2009 autumn. During the survey, one out of two Afghan said that he has paid kickbacks to government officials at least once.

The request for illicit payment invariably comes from the official whose job it is to assist the civil society. The bribe is almost always paid in cash and the average bribe is around $160 in a country where the GDP per capita is a mere $425. Some 25 per cent bribed the police and local officials once during the survey period. Between 10 and 20 per cent of those interviewed said that they have bribed a judge, prosecutor or a member of the government. There is a 40 per cent chance that an audience with a politician implies a kickback paid even by the poorest of the poor.

Kickbacks have become so commonplace in Afghanistan that 38 per cent consider it natural and no one seems to know how to end the problem. Only 9 per cent in urban areas admit to having ever reported corruption cases to the authorities.

Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world where bribery is bleeding the poor. Apart from corrupt government officials, 54 per cent of Afghans believe that international organisations and NGOs are also corrupt and are around only to enrich themselves. This perception of the international community undermines aid effectiveness and is a slur on those who want to genuinely help Afghanistan, a country desperately in need of assistance.

Corruption has destroyed the traditional practice of sharing the surplus with every member of the community without demand for cash in return. The presence of large amounts of cash piled up from drug abuse and corruption has created a new class of moneyed individuals who wield tremendous power. These individuals operate outside the security of the traditional and once powerful tribal structures and they have put a price to favours sold and loyalties earned.

"Criminal graft is monumental and perverse. It touches the political and economic life of the people and also affects the security of the country," warns Costa who regrets the lack of confidence of the people in institutions to deliver public good. Ordinary people are left with little choice but to look for alternative providers of security and service and often this role is played by anti-government elements.

The report suggests that if the foundation of the traditional Afghan justice system presided over by village elders is further weakened, the people will face little choice but to seek more violent forms of retribution similar to the Taliban-backed strict interpretation of sharia, or Islamic law.

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: FEBRUARY 2010