The endemic problem of corruption in Afghanistan is by no means a new subject. Corruption has been widespread and widely debated in a war-ravaged country that remains in turmoil. According to Transparency International, Afghanistan has a score of 11 on the Corruption Perceptions Index (2015) on a scale from 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean). Corruption has continued to undermine the credibility of Afghanistan’s government for the last fourteen years. It remains a daunting challenge for the National Unity Government, which will complete its second year in office in September 2016.
“The government” in this article refers to the machinery of the state that has been in power for the past fourteen years. Realizing the seriousness of the threat, President Ashraf Ghani had to take an immediate step to at least control corruption related to the awarding of government contracts. Soon after taking office, he established a national procurement commission which he himself chairs. Almost every contract to be awarded by the government requires scrutiny from the commission and endorsement before it can proceed. Oversight over procurement at this level may not be sustainable in the long run. Yet it speaks to the hard truth that the president has no trust in the system, leaving him no option but to be personally involved in the overall process. It is a good short-term mechanism to ensure transparency, but no long-term panacea for controlling corruption. President Ashraf Ghani, who has a worldwide reputation for statesmanship, must surely be working on institutionalizing the procurement procedures. This means eventually phasing out the national procurement commission, allowing more time for the president to work on other issues of national importance and putting in place a system that works without requiring the president to intervene.
The problem of corruption in Afghanistan is multifaceted and requires a broader perspective. It is not just an issue of governance, rule of law, moral decline and lack of strong institutions, but also of economics. Low-paid government workers supplement their insufficient income by taking bribes to make both ends meet. Corruption is also a societal issue. Decades of war, conflict and political instability have negatively impacted the social mindset of Afghans. To fight corruption, the government needs to strive on several fronts. From boosting the economy and building and strengthening institutions to introducing reforms and eliminating unnecessary regulations, the government has a golden opportunity to bring change that is in line with the ambitious agenda it presented to the electorate during the 2014 presidential campaign. The social, political and religious intelligentsia must also play its role in fighting corruption, as the government’s law-enforcement measures and reforms cannot alone bring social change.
Finding hard evidence of corruption in Afghanistan is no easy task due to the secrecy that surrounds it. Deals happen clandestinely, and are virtually impossible to be detected. In most cases no paper evidence is available, as transactions happen in clever ways that are impenetrable to legal prosecution. And third parties facilitate the transfer of bribe money, making it even harder to identify the actual recipients. It is only from anecdotal evidence that we know the signs of corruption, when government officials including ministers, deputy ministers and governors flaunt their lavish lifestyles. Others show their wealth when they run for parliamentary seats or other political offices, spending millions on their campaigns. Unfortunately, the price is being paid by ordinary Afghans, as corruption channels millions of dollars in public resources to private pockets. Not only that, corruption has become one of the main factors that slow down and hamper economic growth and development.
In Afghanistan, corruption most often manifests as administrative corruption. It mainly happens when the public sector interfaces with the private sector, especially in the awarding of government projects to private contractors or in issuing business licenses. The common perception is that it is virtually unimaginable to win a contract for a government project without paying bribes at various levels of the relevant government department. But corruption in Afghanistan is not limited to bribery. Other forms of corruption that involve the abuse of power for personal gains include favoritism, nepotism and various other unjust practices. Since bribery has the highest social impact in the country, other ways in which the public sector gets involved in corruption hardly attract attention.
International studies show a strong correlation between ethnolinguistic fractioning and corruption. Afghanistan is a multiethnic and multilingual society with past and present tensions among groups. One of the causes of corruption is also because leaders identifying themselves with certain ethnic groups resort to corrupt practices to benefit the members of the group they represent.
One of the sectors highly affected by administrative corruption is the country’s revenue system. Millions of dollars in public revenue are lost due to excessive bribery at revenue-collection points. The footprint of losses through custom revenues is much larger compared to other areas of public revenues. Tax evasion is another challenge to the government; an efficient tax system could enrich the national treasury in a significant way.
It might be unfair to judge the efficiency of the past and present governments purely in terms of their fights against corruption. Afghanistan’s situation has been very typical of all mid-conflict, post-conflict and fragile states. Such countries continue to face high levels of corruption even when the conflict has long ended. Yet without a strong political will and commitment, corruption can linger for many decades to come, becoming worse and more severe with the passage of time.
Measures taken by President Ghani have raised hopes his National Unity Government is determined to fight the dilemma. In order to change the public perception of corruption, the government must show it has a long-term strategy to combat systemic corruption in addition to the short-term measures the president has already taken.
Ajmal Shams is president of the Afghanistan Social Democratic Party, better known as Afghan Millat National Progressive Party, and is based in Kabul, Afghanistan. He served as policy advisor to Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president, when he chaired the security transition commission before his presidential bid. He mainly writes on political and developmental issues. He has been published in News International, Gulf News, Foreign Policy, the National, the Diplomat, Asia Times, South Asia Magazine and others. Follow him on Twitter @ajmshams.
Image: Ashraf Ghani meets with Hassan Rouhani. Wikimedia Commons/Meghdad Madadi