Cover Image Corruption

(This is an adapted and expanded version of a previous blog, in Dari, on institutional sadism in Afghanistan, available from: Here)

In 2013 the BBC, citing a report by Transparency International, reported Afghanistan as the most corrupt country in the world. By everyone’s admission, administrative corruption has become one of the most formidable challenges in the provision of security and rule of law in Afghanistan. Currently, there are 27 different expressions in use by governmental and non-governmental officials to demand bribes from the helpless potential recipients of services.

Administrative corruption in Afghanistan has been headlined in domestic and international media and remains a serious issue of concern among the public, international donors, key government officials, politicians, and human rights organizations. The media, a number of politicians, ordinary citizens and even some of the state officials believe that administrative corruption poses an even larger threat to the security and stability of the country than insurgency or narcotics. The donor countries, particularly the United States, are so concerned with the destructive impacts of widespread corruption that they have made the availability of aid funds contingent on serious efforts by the Government of Afghanistan to tackle corruption.

This blog is an attempt to present examples of institutionalized corruption and a phenomenon we would like to call “institutional sadism”. Our take on the issue of administrative corruption goes beyond viewing corruption as something of a technical nature, requiring a technical fix. Instead, we argue that tackling corruption in Afghanistan must be cognizant of the decades’ long conflict, the resultant trauma of the general population and the fear of officialdom, and an oversaturation of the economy with massive amounts of international funds that have tended to distort the domestic market and provide numerous opportunities for rent seeking behavior by Afghans and internationals alike. We argue that studies of conflict in Afghanistan have not paid sufficient attention to the social, historical, and anthropological contexts of corruption.

Although President Karzai announced anti-corruption as a main pillar of his government during his second term of presidency, corruption has remained as a most serious challenge for the government and its international donors. The failure to tackle corruption is less a question of a “lack of political will” by the Government of Afghanistan – a charge tossed around by the international community and used as the excuse to wash collective hands off dealing with systemic corruption or other major issues in Afghanistan – and much more a question of failing to understand the root causes of corruption, including a traumatized general public intimidated by authority and unwilling to demand change of behaviour of its officialdom.

In our own and others’ dealings with national officialdom in Afghanistan, working for governmental and non-governmental agencies and organizations, we have come to conclude that many governmental and non-governmental Afghan officials derive pleasure from intimidating the potential recipients of their services while the general tendency of the intimidated public is to give in and find ways of pleasing the seemingly sadistic official, usually by offering up a token of appreciation and humility, typically a form bribe and a bow to acknowledge authority. Even if the intimidating official does not want the bribe, there appears to be utility in keeping down the potential recipient of services. There appear to be signs of enjoyment by officialdom, regardless of linguistic, ethnic, or gender preferences, from harassing and causing pain to the potential recipients of service.

This form of institutional sadism is not new or unique to Afghanistan. Indeed, those familiar with the works of the great German-Czech writer, Franz Kafka, would find many equivalencies in his writings of what we can call institutional sadism in Afghanistan. Writing on sadism in more general terms, Eric Frum offers three categories, the third one of which fits well with the situation in Afghanistan. Frum’s third type of sadism refers to the capacity of causing pain on others or seeing others in pain. This capacity causes the individuals to behave in such a way as to embarrass and humiliate others. Senior or junior Afghan officials working for governmental and non-governmental organizations may not ask for bribes from the clients but their tendency to enjoy the pain they cause by exerting their authority on the clients is palpable. To illustrate, we give three examples.

Example 1:

Mahmood, an employee of a non-government organization, had to obtain an authorization letter from a government ministry as part of the requirements for an ongoing project. He spent seven days being sent from office to office within the authorizing ministry, spending most of his time waiting for the officer in charge who was either too busy to see Mahmood or was out of office despite the formal appointment having been made by Mahmood. The difficulties of the process and the sadistic attitudes of the officials is summed up in Mahmood’s account of his experience: “One day, I was waiting behind the door of one of the departments of this Kabul-based agency from 9:20 am until 10:45 am. During this time no one was allowed to enter the office of the official. After half an hour 3 persons got out the office of the official. 20 minutes later, two other persons got out the office, but I was told that he was still in a meeting. At 10:45 I was allowed into the official’s office and found him having a casual conversation with his friend. He had been given my formal letter and an oral explanation about my request. I was kept waiting in his office while he either initiated or received a number of telephone calls. Eventually he looked at my request and wrote down on my letter: “order to be issued by the related directorate”. Once I referred to the related directorate they reviewed my documents and said that I had to put more clarifications on the letter as the approval by the previous official had not mentioned the project. Without any sympathy or willingness to help, I was told to go back to where I had just spent 7 days to obtain an approval.”

Example 2:

Ahmad who lives in Kabul told us about his difficulties to cancel his business license: “I had got an individual business license, but I decided to cancel it because my business was not at all going well. I had got the license in about 3 weeks but it took me closer to 6 months to cancel it. During this period I saw my case being referred to several branches at two ministries, with me traveling back and forth between the two ministries and their different departments. Sometimes the officials asked me for bribes but mostly they seemed to enjoy running me around from place to place, or telling me that it was 11:30, lunchtime, and that I had to come back the next day. When I expressed my frustration, I was told that I should utilize the services of commissioners. I found out later that commissioners had arrangements with officials and the fee they charge people like me for their services is used to pay bribes for fixing documentation and obtaining the required signatures.”

Example 3:

Frank is a foreign employee in an international organization in Afghanistan. He relates a story about his experience of institutional sadism at Kabul Airport: “When the international security officers were present in the documents inspection unit of the Airport, the national security personnel performed their duties consistently and transparently. But as soon as the internationals left, the national officials started picking on some of the internationals about missing documentation, proof of place of work, work permit, and so forth. While those with missing documents typically end up paying a bribe to get through the inspection, the sense of pleasure visible in the faces of some of the national officials in questioning the international passengers is unmistakable. There are good, honest national security personnel but also sadistic ones. This kind of sadism also applies to some of the national employees of the various airlines operating at the Airport.”

Eric Frum’s categorization of sadism is clearly evident in the attitudes of the national officials working for government and non-government entities. Institutional sadism results in unnecessary delays in processing and approving documents, unnecessary referrals to other persons, entities, or departments, and keeping the clients waiting for as long as possible.

So far as we can ascertain, there have been no attempts to understand and deal with institutional sadism in Afghanistan. Studies conducted by national and international organizations have only addressed the technical aspect of corruption, attributing this issue to different social and economic factors rather than a form of sadism. The more in-depth studies typically highlight the overabundance of official red tape, lack of punishment and legal prosecution of corrupt officials, ethnic and gender discrimination, lack of professionalism, and low salaries of national officials. There have been no studies that have attempted to contextualize corruption in social trauma and endemic conflict, however.

Addressing institutional sadism in Afghanistan requires, among other things, in-depth psychological, anthropological, social, and economic analysis of the root causes of corruption, in addition to experimenting with different types of administrative reform, incentives, and disincentives. In its ongoing effort to draw attention to the more complex aspects of corruption, APPRO has been compiling a list of areas for in-depth research as follows.

1. Dynamics of development aid contracting: A mapping exercise on how international funds are decided on, through which intermediaries they are disseminated, and through what mechanisms oversight is or can be provided. The mapped process should then be assessed for robustness, integrity, and built-in mechanisms to generate monitoring and impact data. Based on this mapping exercise, the following questions may be asked:

Are there adequate (relevant, efficient, effective) and reliable systems of checks and balances to monitor how and whether aid funds reach their targets?

Is the manner in which aid funds are allocated contributing or undermining the capacity of the national organizations? For example, is the high number of international experts and development businesses delivering development programs always justified?

How does the reliance on international experts and development businesses affect national capacity development in the recipient country? What are the implications of using, or not using, national staff on fighting corruption or corruptive modes of operation?

2. Relationship between conflict trauma and corruption: Many Afghans would rather not exercise their legal right to protest against extortion or official corruption. What measures can be taken to build the confidence of ordinary Afghans in taking on corruption or corrupt behaviour?

3. Realigning training and mentoring on corruption: How can capacity building / development become more effective by, for example, resonating more with traditional moral and religious values against corruption? What sets of values and traditional structures could be utilized to fight corruption?

4. Traditional norms and values and anti-corruption: Does or should the mosque put anti-corruption on its social / educational agenda? What role could civil society organizations and the government play in working more closely with religious institutions and authorities to fight corruption?

5. Political parties and corruption: What can be done to place anti-corruption as a high priority campaigning point on the agendas of political parties and elections at sub-national government levels, particularly at provincial council and community development council levels?

6. Non-partisan civil society organizations and corruption: What can be done by civil society organizations as actors in governance to fight corruption? What is known internationally about civil society organizations and their initiatives in fighting corruption? What can be learned from actions and initiatives in other countries for fighting corruption in Afghanistan?

7. Government and corruption: How does corruption in the civil service affect politics in high offices of government including the Parliament? Are there elements within the political system, and particularly in the Parliament, that could more openly and independently work with civil society organizations in fighting corruption? How can this collaboration be nurtured?

8. Private Sector and corruption: What are the views within the private sector on corruption? What set of incentives are needed to create impetus for the private sector actors to fight corruption? Can businesses be encouraged to exercise their legitimate rights to services? Is there a link between a non-existent or improperly functioning taxation system and corruption?

9. Markets and corruption: What is known about how donor aid funds are spent or used once they leave the donors’ organizational boundaries? Are expenditures by donors exceeding the absorption capacity of the domestic market in the recipient countries? Without knowledge of the factor markets, how can donors know they are not being overcharged and contributing to market distortion? How do the more traditional businesses tackle corruption, if at all?

Addressing endemic corruption based on an understanding of the multiple root causes will require independent research, simultaneously, in all of the above areas. While Afghanistan is viewed by many as a lost opportunity – particularly in terms of fighting corruption – the findings from in-depth research in the above areas are likely to contribute to a paradigm change in how international donors and their governments view and fight corruption in Afghanistan and elsewhere.