Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Public Corruption: Afghanistan's Biggest Problem

A report on corruption in Afghanistan, released today by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime shows that the Afghan people regard corruption as their biggest problem.

An overwhelming 59 per cent of the population said that their daily experience of public dishonesty is a bigger concern than insecurity (54 per cent) or unemployment (52 per cent). "The Afghans say that it is impossible to obtain a public service without paying a bribe," says UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa

The report is based on interviews with 7,600 people in 12 provincial capitals and more than 1,600 villages around Afghanistan. It records the real experiences (rather than just the perceptions) of urban as well as rural dwellers, men and women between autumn 2008 and autumn 2009.

The report shows that graft is part of everyday life in Afghanistan. During the survey period, one Afghan out of two had to pay at least one kickback to a public official. More than half of the time (56 per cent), the request for illicit payment was an explicit demand by the service provider. In most instances (three quarters of the cases), baksheesh (bribes) are paid in cash.

The average bribe is US$160 in a country where GDP per capita is a mere US$425 per year. "Bribery is a crippling tax on people who are already among the world's poorest," Costa said.

The problem is enormous by any standards. In the aggregate, Afghans paid out US$2.5 billion in bribes over the past 12 months - that's equivalent to almost one quarter (23 per cent) of Afghanistan's GDP. By coincidence, this is similar to the revenue accrued by the opium trade in 2009 (which UNODC estimates at US$2.8 billion). "Drugs and bribes are the two largest income generators in Afghanistan: together they correspond to about half the country's GDP," says the head of UNODC.

According to the survey, those entrusted with upholding the law are seen as most guilty of violating it. Around 25 per cent of Afghans had to pay at least one bribe to police and local officials during the survey period. Between 10-20 per cent had to pay bribes either to judges, prosecutors or members of the government.

Afghans were asked to pay a bribe 40 per cent of the times that they had contacts with senior politicians. A kickback is so commonly sought (and paid) to speed up administrative procedures that more than a third of the population (38 per cent) thinks that this is the norm. Few people think there is any meaningful recourse: despite the pervasiveness of the problem, only 9 per cent of the urban population has ever reported an act of corruption to authorities.

The international community does not escape criticism: 54 per cent of Afghans believe that international organizations and NGOs, "are corrupt and are in the country just to get rich". This perception risks undermining aid effectiveness and discrediting those trying to help a country desperately in need of assistance.

Corruption is also breaking down traditional patron-client relations. "The rapid influx of vast drug (and aid) monies have created a new caste of rich and powerful individuals who operate outside the traditional power/tribal structures and bid the cost of favours and loyalty to levels not compatible with the under-developed nature of the country," Costa said. "Criminal graft has become similarly monumental, perverse and growing and is having political, economic and even security consequences."

Lack of confidence in the ability of public institutions to deliver public goods is causing Afghans to look for alternative providers of security and welfare, including anti-government elements. "If the very foundation of traditional Afghan justice (administered by the village elders in the shura) is weakened, the recourse to more violent forms of retribution (the Taliban sharia) becomes treacherously appealing," warns Costa.

"The cancer of corruption in Afghanistan is metastatic," Costa said. "In order to prevent this condition from becoming terminal, President Karzai must urgently administer tough medicine based on the United Nations Convention against Corruption which he pushed so hard to ratify."

This includes, Costa said, preventive measures, like turning the High Office of Oversight and Anti-Corruption into "an independent, fearless and well funded anti-corruption authority. At the moment this is not the case." He called for surgery "to remove malignant tumors in public office." Public officials, he said, should be vigorously vetted, "including the use of polygraphic technology." Public servants should disclose their incomes and assets, and governors and local administrators "with proven records of collusion with shady characters" should be removed.

Many Afghans (40 per cent) pay bribes to cut through the red tape of administrative procedures that they do not understand or to cope with poor quality service. "Intentionally providing bad service or making procedures complex in order to extract bribes amounts to extortion," Costa said. He is calling for administrative procedures to be simplified, better explained, and more user-friendly. He also calls for full transparency in public procurement, tendering processes and political campaigns as well as tightening of the regulation of financial institutions (including the hawala system) in order to prevent money laundering.

"Everyone says that corruption is a massive problem in Afghanistan. This report proves that the average Afghan agrees," Costa said. "It's time to drain the swamp of corruption in Afghanistan, to stop money and trust disappearing down a big black hole. Corruption is the biggest impediment to improving security, development and governance in Afghanistan. It is also enabling other forms of crime - like drug trafficking and terrorism." he warned.

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