Corruption is not inevitable. Afghanistan should focus on technical, legal, and cultural areas to ease the tyranny of corruption.
President Karzai's Washington visit last month was basically a "be-nice-to-Karzai summit."
After a period of harsh and direct US criticism this past fall, the air is cleared, but issues remain. Corruption in particular—hardly touched upon during the visit—threatens to imperil success in Afghanistan even if the military and security challenges are mastered.
Transparency International ranks Afghanistan as the second most corrupt country in the world, after Somalia. A study from the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime reports that corruption is the second-largest contributor to the country's gross domestic product. Clearly, corruption is Afghanistan's Achilles' heel.
A few weeks ago, RAND hosted a gathering of the Afghan government's director general for the High Office of Oversight and Anti-Corruption, civil society activists, investigative journalists, parliamentarians, educators, and bloggers in Kabul to discuss Afghanistan's future.
While the participants generated a depressing list of the myriad ways corruption permeates daily life, we also found many bright spots—groups and individuals resisting the insidious spread of corruption—and together developed ideas on how to fight corruption more effectively.
As dramatic and disturbing as the statistics are, they can make it seem like corruption is just a regrettable and inevitable fact of life. What they don't convey is just how difficult it makes the daily reality for the Afghan people. Citizens have to bribe a cascade of officials before they can pay their electricity bill or even taxes. Schoolchildren often need to bribe their teachers to obtain a report card. One man related how a cleric had demanded a bribe to convert his Christian fiancée to Islam.
Corruption has gone beyond what is normal or tolerable in Afghanistan. In previous generations, officials were known to be corrupt, but they were ostracized for it. Now it is seen as an acceptable and normal way to get ahead.
Even some economists argue that corruption can be a lubricant, greasing the wheels where salaries are low and idealism is tepid. Maybe. But in Afghanistan, corruption impedes sustainable economic development, depletes donor resources, and plays to the one perceived strength of the Taliban—their moral righteousness.
Discussions of corruption in Afghanistan tend to focus on addressing it at the top—to set an example, and because this is where large amounts of money are siphoned off. There is no doubt that Afghan elites and leadership must be held accountable; and sure, putting one or two big name malefactors on trial and sentencing them would send a message. But that effort should not mean putting on hold any effort to clean things up at the middle and lower levels. If citizens could open and run their businesses and manage their daily affairs without being extorted by police, bureaucrats, and officials, life would improve and confidence in the government would increase.
Confronting mid-level corruption requires three areas of focus: technical, legal, and cultural.
Technical solutions, such as electronic payments, cut out the middleman and reduce opportunities for extortion. Technology could also allow public servants to be monitored, for example, by tracking the number of cases they can process and allowing an incentive system to replace bribes as a source of additional income.
Legal means are often the most difficult to develop and enforce. The media, as one of the better developed institutions in Afghanistan, could help by cooperating with the High Commission to expose corrupt bureaucrats.
The Afghan parliament has independently set up a "Complaints Office." While it is now just a shabby little room with a paper sign on the door, it is still open for citizen business every day, and the staff make an effort to follow up on reports of wrongdoing. With a little guidance, and perhaps also coordination with the media and the High Commission, this office could become significantly more effective.
Finally, Afghans need to regain their moral footing. Other countries have shown great success when society simply begins to reject the attitude that it is okay to extort money for services to which the public is entitled. Corrupt individuals need to be shamed, perhaps patterning after India's "Zero Rupee" campaign, where corrupt officials received "payment" with specially printed bills that resembled the actual currency—but had a denomination of zero.
While we may not soon see high Afghan officials brought to justice on charges of corruption, these three areas of focus could ease the tyranny of corruption on the daily lives of Afghans and rebuild the cultural underpinnings needed for a next and better generation of Afghan leaders and public servants.
Cheryl Benard is the former director of the Alternative Strategies Initiative at the RAND Corporation. Elvira Loredo is a researcher at RAND, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision making through research and analysis.
This commentary originally appeared in Christian Science Monitor on June 4, 2010.