Crooked Progress: Afghanistan Tackles Corruption

By Colaco, Nita | Harvard International Review, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Crooked Progress: Afghanistan Tackles Corruption


Colaco, Nita, Harvard International Review


Seven years after the fall of the Taliban regime, Afghans--and the international community--are still struggling to construct a state with a functioning government, licit economic growth, and improved social conditions. While the country has seen significant advancements since 2001, particularly in terms of health, education, and other socioeconomic factors, few would argue that the situation in Afghanistan is progressing well. Security has deteriorated in recent years, opium cultivation continues at high levels, and most Afghans lack access to basic necessities such as electricity and clean water.

The weak state of Afghanistan's government is at the forefront of the nation's challenges. President Hamid Karzai regularly comes under attack from both his countrymen and internationals for overseeing an administration and civil service riddled with corruption and inefficiency. Transparency International recently ranked Afghanistan 172 out of 180 countries in its 2008 global corruption index. Afghans themselves commonly perceive that corruption has increased within government ranks in the past five years.

Corruption is endemic throughout the developed and developing world, but it is particularly damaging in Afghanistan, where the lack of a credible government threatens the country's already volatile security situation. As Afghans lose confidence that their government can provide them with basic services, they are more likely--particularly in rural areas--to look to the Taliban for support and subsistence. International donors such as the United States and World Bank exacerbate the problem by channeling two-thirds of their aid money outside of government systems. The result is that the Afghan government loses out on the ability to build capacity and monitor cash flows, and government officials receive little recognition when successes do occur.

No consensus exists on the best way to combat corruption. Some call for a change of leadership, which may occur if security constraints do not preclude presidential elections in 2009. Others demand a systemic overhaul of the sclerotic international aid system. But such drastic reforms are unlikely to transpire in the near future. In reality, the best hope for realizing a functioning Afghan state is an approach that creates and strengthens mechanisms for the prevention, detection, and prosecution of corruption.

Public administration reforms, which attempt to obviate corruption and increase transparency and efficiency by establishing effective national systems through incremental steps, are being enacted and refined. The first phase of reform in 2002 focused on stemming low-level corruption such as bribery, which affects nearly all Afghans. Afghans often must pay tips--"shirini," in Dari--to civil servants in order to receive services, from passports and visas to electricity. In Afghanistan's border provinces, customs officials allow goods to flow out of the country untaxed in exchange for bribe money.

Initial reforms increased government pay scales, under the belief that raised salaries for public officials--who traditionally earn far less than other professionals--would alleviate their desire to collect bribe money. When disappointing results ensued, new measures were designed to improve the civil service, prioritizing competence and performance over pay increases. …

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