Corruption in Afghanistan - Gambling for High Stakes

09 December 2013

by Mansoor Jalal

Mansoor Jalal, based in London, recently worked as a Researcher for Integrity Watch Afghanistan

Everyone who lives and works in Afghanistan at some point will have encountered it. Perhaps you need to apply for a new passport, obtain a marriage certificate, or get a statement of your exam results. You present yourself armed with the necessary paperwork, and are turned away. It’s not possible. There is a problem. You know full well that nothing will be forthcoming and you’ll be trapped in endless bureaucratic stagnation unless you pay a small bakhshish bribe. And it becomes internalised throughout society. Maybe you get a phone call from a friend or relative in need of help asking: “Do you know someone in the Ministry?” “Can you introduce me to someone at your workplace?” It is part of life - nothing progresses without it.

And it is top-down: despite reforms, there is still a tendency for senior government jobs to be based on tribal or ethnic connections. Too often jobs are seen as being an opportunity to exert influence and expand personal powers. No public sphere is unaffected; a small syndicate of ethno-tribal elites are sitting on top of economic, business and public institutions and extracting what they can for their own personal gain. Clearly this discourages innovation in the long term, damaging social justice and perpetuating underdevelopment and poverty for the masses. Corruption at all levels benefits only a few, but the cost is paid by the majority of the population.

It would be easy in Afghanistan to blame the high incidence of corruption on others - the presence of foreigners, the wartime economy or the high volume of aid. But reflecting on the everyday incidents of corruption one encounters it is hard to deny that corruption is within the culture, has become tolerated, and is embedded at all levels. Rooting it out requires not only a sound legal and institutional environment (where, for example, salaries are adequate and paid on time), but also a more profound cultural change.

Less then a week ago Transparency International in its latest corruption perception index ranked Afghanistan the most corrupt country in the world along with North Korea and Somalia (Report also available in our Resources section). According to the national corruption survey by Integrity Watch Afghanistan the Afghan population paid $1.25 billion in bribes in 2012, even higher in other estimates. The outcry of a population suffering from corruption, the call from civil society and the international community on the Afghan government to curb corruption seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Corruption continues to remain the top concern of Afghan citizens alongside insecurity and unemployment.

Afghanistan continues to be one of the world’s least developed countries and the worsening of widespread corruption further impedes the slow rate of progress. Modern governments are seen as facilitating social and economic justice and safeguarding the welfare of the people. But in Afghanistan this has been reversed. The increasing burden of corruption has resulted in the loss of confidence in the government by the people. The resulting breakdown of the social contract, and the growing gap between people and government, indirectly fuels insecurity, especially in the rural population who better comprehend Taliban-style justice over a police force they feel they cannot trust, or formal government courts where verdicts can be bought.

The government has appeared reluctant to fight corruption. Some blame lack of political will at the top, others say that the government is corrupt high up and prefers to keep the status-quo as it stands, with no interest in shaking up the system. Despite the memories of rampant vote frauds in the 2009 elections in Afghanistan, there is a hope that the upcoming election will produce a government that is more serious about the fight against corruption. Perhaps the candidates have to clearly outline what their government will do in curbing corruption and this should become central to their campaigns. As the surveys show, it’s certainly an issue of major concern to voters.    

If the current trends are not reversed, especially in the next year or two, corruption will discourage much needed investment and international aid and further erode faith in government. There is already a general decline of economy and increasing unemployment in the wake of the international troop draw down, and a subsequent reduction in funding of international donors to Afghanistan.

Today is international anti-corruption day. Whilst we can take today to reflect and recognise the activities that promote transparency, we must not turn a blind eye to these deeply rooted issues for the rest of the year. Isn’t it high time to collectively increase pressure on the current or the next government in Afghanistan to do more on corruption? With extremist groups using the issue of corruption to highlight the government’s lack of integrity, the stakes could not be higher.