While violence and poverty are widely thought to be the major challenges confronting Afghanistan, nearly 60 per cent of the population said corruption is their biggest concern, according to a new United Nations report, which states that Afghans paid $2.5 billion in bribes over the past 12 months.
“The Afghans say that it is impossible to obtain a public service without paying a bribe,” says Antonio Maria Costa, the Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which published the report, “Corruption in Afghanistan: Bribery as Reported by Victims.”
The report is based on interviews with 7,600 people in 12 provincial capitals and over 1,600 villages on their experiences between autumn 2008 and autumn 2009.
During the survey period, one Afghan out of two had to pay at least one kickback to a public official, UNODC says in a news release. More than half of the time, the request for the bribe was explicitly demanded by the service provider, and in most cases, the bribes were paid in cash.
The average bribe is $160 in a country where the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is just $425 per year. Afghans paid out $2.5 billion in bribes over the past 12 months, equivalent to almost one quarter of the country’s GDP. This is similar to the revenue accrued by the opium trade in 2009, which UNODC estimates at $2.8 billion.
“Drugs and bribes are the two largest income generators in Afghanistan: together they correspond to about half the country’s GDP,” Mr. Costa notes.
In addition, the report finds that public officials are seen as the biggest culprits, with around 25 per cent of Afghans saying that they had to pay at least one bribe to police and local officials during the survey period, while between 10 and 20 per cent had to pay bribes either to judges, prosecutors, or members of the government.
The international community also received criticism, with 54 per cent of Afghans believing that international and non-governmental organizations “are corrupt and are in the country just to get rich.”
This perception, notes UNODC, “risks undermining aid effectiveness and discrediting those trying to help a country desperately in need of assistance.”
Mr. Costa urged the new Afghan Government to make fighting corruption its highest priority, describing the scourge as a cancer that is spreading. Specifically, he said President Karzai must urgently administer tough medicine based on the UN Convention against Corruption, including turning the High Office of Oversight and Anti-Corruption into “an independent, fearless and well-funded anti-corruption authority.”
Among other measures, he recommended that public officials should be “vigorously” vetted, public servants should disclose their incomes and assets, and governors and local administrators “with proven records of collusion with shady characters” should be removed.