19 January 2010 - Poverty and violence are usually portrayed as the biggest challenges confronting Afghanistan. But ask the Afghans themselves, and you get a different answer: corruption is their biggest worry. A new UNODC survey reveals that an overwhelming 59 per cent of Afghans view public dishonesty as a bigger concern than insecurity (54 per cent) and unemployment (52 per cent).
Corruption in Afghanistan: Bribery as Reported by Victims is based on interviews with 7,600 people in 12 provincial capitals and more than 1,600 villages around Afghanistan. It records the real experiences (rather than just perceptions) of urban as well as rural residents, men and women, between autumn 2008 and autumn 2009.
One of the respondents in the survey explains: "My cousin runs a medical practice. Some expired and low-quality drugs were found in his clinic and the health department started a procedure to take him to court. Later, he bribed the head doctor and his file was clean within a day. My cousin is still selling the expired and poor-quality drugs made in Pakistan, under the label of Germany and US."
In 2009, Afghan citizens had to pay approximately US$ 2.5 billion in bribes, which is equivalent to 23 per cent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP), according to the report. By coincidence, this is similar to the revenue accrued by the opium trade in 2009 (which UNODC estimates at US$ 2.8 billion). "Drugs and bribes are the two largest income generators in Afghanistan: together they correspond to about half the country's (licit) GDP," said UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa as he released the report today in London.
The report shows that graft is part of everyday life in Afghanistan. During the survey period, one Afghan out of two had to pay at least one kickback to a public official. In more than half the cases (56 per cent), the request for illicit payment was an explicit demand by the service provider. In three quarters of the cases, baksheesh (bribes) were paid in cash. The average bribe is US$ 160, in a country where GDP per capita is a mere US$ 425 per year.
Another respondent explains: "There are people known as 'employed on commission' who operate in front of government buildings. They approach us saying that they can solve any kind of issue in a short time and then they quote the price. For example, if you need a passport or driving license or are paying taxes and customs duties, they can give you the final receipt which has been processed through all official channels in a matter of days, a process which takes usually weeks. Then they will take the money and share it with those who are sitting inside offices."
According to the survey, those entrusted with upholding the law are seen as most guilty of violating it. Around 25 per cent of Afghans had to pay at least one bribe to police and local officials during the survey period. Between 10-20 per cent had to pay bribes either to judges, prosecutors or members of the government. The international community does not escape criticism: 54 per cent of Afghans believe that international organizations and NGOs "are corrupt and are in the country just to get rich". Lack of confidence in the ability of public institutions to deliver public goods and services is causing Afghans to look for alternative providers of security and welfare, including criminal and anti-government elements.
"Corruption is the biggest impediment to improving security, development and governance in Afghanistan," said the head of UNODC. "It is also enabling other forms of crime, like drug trafficking and terrorism," he warned.
In order to prevent this condition from becoming terminal, Mr. Costa called on President Karzai to "urgently administer tough medicine based on the United Nations Convention against Corruption, which he pushed so hard to ratify". This includes preventive measures, like turning the High Office of Oversight and Anti-Corruption into "an independent, fearless and well-funded anti-corruption authority. At the moment, this is not the case". He also called for vigorous vetting of public officials; public servants to disclose their incomes and assets; and governors and local administrators "with proven records of collusion with shady characters" to be removed.
While launching the report in London at the International Institute of Strategic Studies on 19 January, Mr. Costa stressed that "this report is designed to provide constructive criticism in order to help Afghanistan. We are not here to point fingers or name names. The report expresses the views of the Afghan people who obviously regard corruption as a major problem. Together, the Afghan Government and the international community must confront this issue head on as a matter of urgency. There is no alternative".
This sentiment was echoed by UNODC's Representative in Afghanistan, Jean-Luc Lemahieu, when discussing the report with the press in Kabul on 21 January. "This report shows the need for an anti-corruption strategy for Afghanistan which we look forward to seeing in the coming days. UNODC stands ready to work with the Government - particularly the High Office of Oversight, the Supreme Court, the Attorney General, and the Ministries of Finance and the Interior - to implement this strategy in the spirit of the UN Anti-Corruption Convention and the good partnership that we enjoy with the Afghan Government", said Mr. Lemahieu.
UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa's Presentation