Global Post, April 15, 2011
Corruption in Afghanistan: The elephant in the room
It’s everywhere, it’s impossible to fight, and it's almost impossible to document. But corruption is the defining characteristic of Afghanistan, and foreign aid is helping it along
By Jean MacKenzie
Just ask Vice President Joe Biden about corruption in Afghanistan. During a now-famous dinner with Hamid Karzai during the 2008 U.S. election year, then-Sen. Biden questioned the Afghan president about corruption in his government. Karzai assured him that reports had been overblown by the Western media. Biden threw down his napkin and walked out.
A security guard stands at the entrance to Kabul Bank in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Photo: S Sabawoon/EPA)
I wish that the media had shown the same resolve when Karzai waffled earlier this week about Kabul Bank, and how the losses — according to some reports, totaling nearly a billion dollars — are just as much the fault of the international community as they are of those who engineered them.
The Afghan president went so far as to suggest that the international firms who failed to spot and stop the shareholders of Kabul Bank be prosecuted alongside the perpetrators.
Had the consultants given better advice, hinted Karzai, those in charge at Kabul Bank, who included his own brother and the brother of his vice-president, would have known better than to grant themselves huge unsecured loans to speculate on luxury property for themselves in Dubai; they would never have traded on their high-level government connections to escape scrutiny; and, of course, they would have faithfully returned the money they had so cavalierly squandered.
“International organizations and foreign entities, who have been recruited and paid hundreds of millions of dollars of Afghanistan’s money to improve Afghanistan’s banking system, perform strong audits, and improve and build capacity for us, have not done their job,” Karzai said at his widely-quoted press conference.
“Afghanistan’s money?” How is that, exactly? The dollars paid to the international firms had come directly from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
Of course, international organizations do deserve a share of opprobrium. As Wikileaks’ release of cables from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul has made abundantly clear, U.S. officials were aware of many of the problems with Kabul Bank far in advance of the crisis. They also had a very good understanding of the level of corruption inside the Afghan government.
But, as one European official told the New York Times, Karzai-bashing is “a dangerous game” in a climate where voters and taxpayers have a diminishing appetite for the war in Afghanistan. Bad news could easily tip the scales in favor of calls for withdrawal.
So, in order to keep the home front happy, the international community collaborates with the Afghan government to downplay the scale of the problem.
“They are more than complicit,” fumed one international consultant. “They are co-conspirators.”
Afghanistan is now tied with Burma for the dubious distinction of Second Most Corrupt Nation in the World, according to Transparency International’s latest index. Only Somalia ranks lower.
Cases such as the Kabul Bank scandal make the headlines and generate flurries of reporting and activity.
But corruption in Afghanistan is not confined to high-level government officials. From the traffic cop who pockets 100 afghani (about $2) to waive a moving violation, to the chief of staff who asks for $50,000 to secure an important signature on a needed document, everyone is on the take.
In my own experience, which encompasses nearly seven years in Afghanistan, corruption ranging from almost the unbelievably petty to the truly dangerous has been an almost daily factor of existence.
In many organizations, including one of which I have first-hand knowledge, the Afghan head of office is a mini-czar, reigning supreme. He (or she) hires family members or close acquaintances for every conceivable job, regardless of qualifications. I originally thought this was understandable, if regrettable — after all, family ties are strong in Afghanistan, and one must provide for the extended tribe.
Only later did I come to realize that the reasons for the “hire a village” tradition is much more self-interested: the employment-giver often takes a kick-back on the salaries of family members, thereby increasing his or her own pay-packet by a healthy margin.
Procurement is another gold mine. I was purchasing a few small electronic items at a store in downtown Kabul, and happened to mention the name of the organization I was then affiliated with. The salesman nodded in understanding. “We can give you reconditioned items; they are much cheaper,” he offered.
I said, no, I wanted new ones for the office.
“Don’t worry,” he laughed. “We’ll give you receipts for new items, at the higher price. That is what [your organization] always does.”
Of course he expected a small gratuity for his trouble.
Every commodity from diesel fuel to drinking water, from AAA batteries to generators, is billed at approximately 20 percent over cost. Hand-scrawled receipts are the only evidence, and they can easily be doctored.
In a small project with a monthly budget of $50,000 or so, this can yield an additional $10,000 per month for the staff. Multiply that by millions for some of the larger players, and you begin to comprehend the tsunami of corruption engulfing the country.
Nor is there a great deal of interest in exposing this type of problem.
Much as the international community defends its own interests by helping to whitewash the Kabul government, implementers and donors have little enthusiasm for exposing corruption within their own ranks.
A home office in London or Washington will tolerate almost anything from a cooperative finance director. As long as things add up, the head office will generate glowing reports to protect its own funding.
Donors, such as European embassies or USAID, are also uninterested in being shown to have been neglectful or foolish in dealing with those who implement the projects they fund. I have spent hours discussing local corruption with donors, only to have them smile and say, “as long as the project is successful, we are happy.”
Uncomfortable as it is to acknowledge, Karzai has a point when he says that Western money is the fuel that makes corruption work in Afghanistan.
There is a “what can you do?” attitude among many that echoes the speeches of Gen. David Petraeus. The commander of U.S. and NATO forces is fond of repeating that we are not trying to “turn Afghanistan into Switzerland,” and that we have to be content with “Afghan good enough.”
A few years ago I was seated next to a mid-level anti-corruption official at a U.S. Embassy dinner. He was Afghan-American, and worked in a major oversight project.
The talk drifted to anti-corruption measures, and I decided to be blunt.
“How can we talk of fighting corruption, when some of the most dishonest people in the country are in positions of power?” I asked.
I mentioned by name one minister whom I considered to be a prime example of the problem.
The official laughed loudly and leaned towards me. “He [naming the minister] is a close relative of mine,” he said.
My face colored, and I was about to stammer some sort of apology. He waved me off.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I agree with you completely.”
I rest my case.
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