So President Barack Obama and his loyal ally Kevin Rudd think that in a year from now Afghanistan will be in a fit and proper state to start withdrawing troops and letting the Afghans run more things for themselves. We can but wish them luck and hope that the report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime released this week has got things terribly wrong.

For according to a survey by this group of international bureaucrats corruption is so endemic and so costly that the country’s poor are naturally enough turning to the Taliban as an alternative government that will not fleece them of their meagre incomes.

In the delicate words of diplomacy, the report describes how, on a community level, corruption undermines faith in local government actors and strengthens local non-governmental structures that are not accountable to the people, to democratic structures or to the rule of law. “On a national level, pervasive corruption undermines the entire sense of Afghanistan as a nation,” it says.

“The lack of confidence in Government actors that results from both experiences and perceptions of corruption threatens the very stability of Afghanistan. If ordinary Afghans are, because of corruption, unable to obtain services and protection from the Government – or able to do so only through bribery – the Government of Afghanistan will not have the support it desperately needs from every community across the country if it is to win its battle against the Taliban insurgency.”

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A few extracts from the report give the flavour of the problem.

Unlike other corruption reports, this one is not based only on perceptions: in other words, it does not only measure shadows filtered through individual discernment and discontent. It quantifies the actual crime, as reported by the victims. This is the real thing, based on interviews with 7,600 people (a reliable sample) in twelve provincial capitals and more than 1,600 villages around Afghanistan.

According to this report, it is almost impossible to obtain a public service in Afghanistan without greasing a palm: bribing authorities is part of everyday life. During the past 12 months, one Afghan out of two, in both rural and urban communities, had to pay at least one kickback to a public official.

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This was not just done through a wink and a nudge: more than half of the time (56%), the request for illicit payment was explicit by the service providers. In most instances (3/4 of the cases), baksheesh (bribes) are paid in cash. The average amount was $160 – in a country where GDP per capita is a mere $425 per year. This is a crippling tax on people who are already among the world’s poorest.

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The problem is enormous by any standards. In the aggregate, Afghans paid out $2.5 billion in bribes over the past 12 months – that’s equivalent to almost one quarter (23%) of Afghanistan’s GDP. By coincidence, this is similar to the revenue accrued by the opium trade in 2009 (which we have estimated separately at $2.8 billion).

In other words, and this is shocking, drugs and bribes are the two largest income generators in Afghanistan: together they amount to about half the country’s (licit) GDP.

To make things worse, in Afghanistan those entrusted with upholding integrity and the law are seen as being most guilty of violating them. Around 25% of Afghan citizens had to pay at least one bribe to police and local officials over the past year. Between 10-20% had to pay bribes to judges, prosecutors, doctors and members of the government.

A kickback is so commonly sought (and paid) to speed up administrative procedures, that more than a third of the population (38%) thinks that this is the norm.

Peter Fray

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