Corruption in Afghanistan UN Report Claims Bribes Equal to Quarter of GDP

Need a driver's license in Kabul? $180 will get you one within hours. $60,000 will get you out of jail in Afghanistan. A new UN study shows just how rampant corruption has become in the war-torn country. Indeed, bribery is equal to a quarter of the Afghan GDP.

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Scenes such as this one often end with the payment of a bribe in Afghanistan.
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Scenes such as this one often end with the payment of a bribe in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan's leading anti-corruption crusader wears a broad smile and speaks perfect German. Mohammed Eshaq Aloko, the attorney general of Afghanistan, spent years in Hamburg -- indeed, his wife still lives in Germany. But Aloko elected to return to his homeland. "The country was lawless for decades," Aloko is fond of telling visitors from the West, "which is why one can't expect a law-based society to appear out of nowhere." First, he points out, one must make a reliable diagnosis before a therapy can be decided upon.

It is clear to everyone in Afghanistan exactly what needs to be diagnosed. Afghans have learned from their daily lives that the rules of life are quite simple: Everything is possible, but everything has a price.

  • A passenger needs to get to the airport quickly without any bothersome security checks? No problem, for a price of $20 at the first checkpoint.

  • You need a driver's license immediately and without any tests? Such express service will set you back $180.

  • A family wants their son, in prison for drug smuggling, to return home? The necessary papers will be filled out the same day for a price of $60,000.

The list of such examples is endless -- nothing is accomplished in Afghanistan without the payment of bribes. Foreigners can even obtain an Afghan passport as a souvenir, if they're willing to fork out a bit of cash. Every government agency employs official commissionkars, the Persian word for intermediary. Without these helpful assistants, no application would reach its intended destination, no building permits would be issued and no stamps would be placed on any documents. Afghans can't even choose for themselves the five witnesses they want for their wedding. It is often the case that the justice of the peace has a relative who is only too happy to take on the duty -- for a fee of course.

The Country's Greatest Problem

Just how extreme corruption has become in Afghanistan can be seen in a new study released by the United Nations. According to the paper, 59 percent of Afghanistan citizens point to corruption as the greatest problem facing the country -- that ranks the problem even higher than security (54 percent) and unemployment (chosen by 52 percent of those polled). The study, released on Tuesday, was put together by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and includes the responses of 7,600 people from 1,600 villages questioned between August and October of last year.

The study shows just how omnipresent the payment of bribes has become in everyday life in Afghanistan. In the last 12 months, Afghan citizens have paid $2.5 billion in bribes -- roughly a quarter of the country's gross domestic product. "The Afghans say that it is impossible to obtain a public service without paying a bribe," UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa writes on the organization's Web site. The "cancer of corruption" is "metastatic," he says, and can be found even in the highest echelons of government. Afghans who have had recent contact with government representatives report that, in 40 percent of the cases, they were asked for bribes.

Every second person surveyed reports having bribed someone in the last year -- usually after having been requested to do so. The average payment is $158 -- a generous sum for a country in which average annual income is a mere $425. According to the report, the most corrupt officials are those allegedly overseeing law and order: Twenty-five percent of those surveyed report having bribed a policeman in 2009, 18 percent a judge and 13 percent a public attorney. "The Afghan people are under the impression that it is cheaper to buy a judge than to hire a lawyer," the report says.

Powerful Atlas of Dishonesty

Such widespread corruption among police and in the judiciary is dangerous, the report says: People lose their trust in the state and look for security elsewhere. Resignation is also spreading. Sixty-three percent believe that filing complaints against corrupt officials is a waste of time. Only 9 percent have even tried. Even village elders have given up and do little to protest against the problem.

The report is a powerful atlas of dishonesty in the country -- bribery is lowest in the western part of the country and at its highest in the north and the south. The more rural the areas, the higher the corruption, the report found, with big cities such as Kabul and Hirat much less affected. The problem is intensified by the long tradition of patronage in Afghanistan -- corruption is considered to be socially acceptable. Fully 38 percent think it is legitimate for a government official to ask for a "present." Forty-two percent find nepotism unproblematic.

The UN sees the battle against corruption as a vitally important element of its strategy to turn the country back over to the Afghans. Such a corrupt country could never function on its own, international aid workers fear. It is hoped that the new report will raise the already intense pressure on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to do something about the problem. Karzai, says Costa, should "urgently administer tough medicine based on the UN Convention against Corruption, which he pushed so hard to ratify."

Reducing the Temptation

First and foremost, the UN would like to see an anti-corruption agency. Each new civil servant should also be made to sign an oath against corruption. Those who violate the law should be jettisoned and the salaries of public servants should be made transparent. "Let's see how senior officials can afford flashy cars and fancy villas with salaries of less than $500 a month!" Costa writes in the report. At the same time, however, he recommends that salaries be increased significantly to reduce the temptation to take bribes.

So far, little has happened to dampen corruption in Afghanistan, aside from a few weak statements of intention from Karzai. In a November speech on the occasion of his inauguration for a second term in office, he promised the West he would kick off an offensive against corruption. Since then, however, he has done nothing. Even a strategy paper outlining a possible anti-corruption agency, originally set to be finished prior to next week's Afghanistan conference in London, has yet to materialize. Western diplomats say that Karzai has disappointed them once again. Few are willing to accuse Karzai himself of corruption, but members of his family have been fingered.

When Karzai is asked about his promise, he is fond of referring people to Attorney General Aloko. Just as Karzai was being sworn in, Aloko began proceedings against five government ministers for corruption and announced that trials would begin soon. Since then, however, little has been heard about the five cases. Aloko's diagnosis, one is left to assume, isn't finished yet.


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