Corruption in Afghanistan - Blame and shame

19 November 2009

If the international community is serious about dealing with corruption in Afghanistan, they need to revise their own dubious practices.

Today Afghan President Hamid Karzai is inaugurated for his second term as the country's "elected" president. The first round of elections was mired in fraud, while the second round was cancelled after his main contester withdrew. Most Afghans we speak with on our trip here were pleased with the cancellation, as one of them told us: "Democracy may be good, but elections are a dangerous thing for us".

We are not in Kabul for the ceremony, but far away in Herat near the Iranian border to look at the increasing problems here with heroin use. Arriving in Herat is a relief after our first days in the capital. Herat doesn't feel like a war zone like Kabul. Here there are no roadblocks, hardly any concrete blocks with barbed wire, very few buildings destroyed, and no armed men on every corner of the street.

It's also a beautiful city, as the civil war between the mujahideen groups that destroyed most of Kabul didn't affect Herat that much. Here you still sense the glory of this country's great history.

We visit the ancient citadel, enlarged by Alexander the Great around 300 BC, partly destroyed by Ghengis Khan in 1215, but rebuilt by his great-great-grandson and his very wise and literate wife. The latter also built the 15th century minarets that still tower over the city. Impressive remnants of a once pioneering civilization. Unlike Kabul, Herat with its beauty may be somewhat misleading in its appearance of tranquillity.

Karzai starts his second term today amid increasing allegations of corruption and waning confidence. He has promised a clean-up and people are anxious to see his new Cabinet. Several dubious characters -including some of those responsible for destroying Kabul - were part of his previous one.

His impossible task now is to portray honest intentions of good governance for the future, while his own brother is accused of drug trafficking and corruption, and his power base relies on deals he makes with controversial warlords. Widespread corruption flourished under his presidency at almost all levels of government. Nobody we meet, including high-ranking officials, tries to deny this.

On the contrary, they add more colourful examples and are not afraid - off the record - to name the ones involved. A nephew of the governor was caught with a car full of heroin at the Tajik border, but was later released. A minister used government helicopters to smuggle drugs. The Ministry has at least 200 phantom jobs for which salaries are paid every month. And much more.

Yet the Afghans we meet are just as appalled about certain practices of international agencies. A high-ranking ministry official tells us: "Yes, under this government corruption has increased, but some international agencies are just as corrupt". An expensive consultant is paid four months and all we see is a useless PowerPoint presentation. And what about a consultant paid a huge amount to produce another paper with monitoring indicators, while we already have two of those lying in our drawer?

Meanwhile, he adds, the Ministry's qualified staff are underpaid but leave to work for those agencies. This, in our view, is corruption too, he tells us. And so are the high overheads of contractors and subcontractors who themselves only pass project on to the next subcontractor. If the international community is serious about corruption here, they need to revise their own dubious practices, starting with proper procurement rules about subcontracting, he concludes.

A western official admits to us that his Afghan counterpart has a point. Apart from the huge security expenses, much of the reconstruction money for Afghanistan never even leaves donor countries. Much is lost on overheads on the way there. Part is lost to local corruption. In the end very little is left for the actual development work on the ground or reaching local communities.

Some funding schemes even accept, if not stimulate, local corruption. A donor representative involved in the Good Performance Initiative, set up to reward governors who manage to reduce opium cultivation, apparently once said during a donor meeting: "We don't mind if that guy buys a Maserati, as long as he gets rid of the opium in his province".

Meanwhile, here in Herat, the province with perhaps the biggest problem with heroin use, there is not even one centre for male drug users to seek treatment. During the ceremony in Kabul today, we will be visiting places in Heart where injecting heroin users are hanging around, to hear their stories. Among those places are the ruins of the once so magnificent palace right between the four minarets.

Published by AlertNet. Copyright © Thomas Reuters Foundation.