According to the Chinese Zodiac the Year 2013, which began on February 10, is the year of the snake. In Chinese folklore the snake is also called the junior dragon, which the most enigmatic, intuitive, introspective, refined, and collected of the animals signs. A snake in the house is a good omen because it means that the family will not starve. (And, in the case of an anaconda, neither will the snake). People born in the year of the snake are cunning, quite intelligent, and wise. They are also great mediators and good at doing business.


All of this feels strikingly true if we apply it to those individuals who are the main beneficiaries of corruption in Afghanistan. Our corrupt actors, national and extra-national, have made fortunes robbing their fellow human folk of the hundreds of millions of aid money that have been flowing into Afghanistan since 2001. They are enigmatic, intuitive, introspective, refined, and collected – and collecting. They bring good omen because the spread their ill-gotten gains among their family and kin, and awful looking structures dotting major cities. They are cunning, intelligent, and wise because they all have their eyes fixed on when the flow of aid will shrink or stop in the post-2014 period. But, we hope, there are also good mediators and individuals and organizations willing to do good business indefinitely because the year of the horse, 2014, is for individuals who are smart and good at engaging others.


As a national NGO that does research, training on the policy process, and evaluations APPRO had no intention of doing research on corruption when it started operations in 2008. Time and again, APPRO found that almost anything it researched had corruption mixed with it as a significant element. APPRO then started studying why this was – and what we found was at once fascinating and horrifying. Our research convinced us that the focus by the international donors and governments on the corrupt elements in the Government of Afghanistan was at best ignorant, and at worst biased and discriminatory.


Corruption is certainly present in all forms of officialdom in Afghanistan. But it is also a part and parcel of how donor aid funds are expensed, how ordinary people go about their daily life, and how private sector actors – the unquestioned heroes and saviors of post 2001 Afghanistan – collectively perpetuate the big dragon of corruption. And changing the current system will require both the snakes and the horses and soon.


In 2012, after years of close competition with Somalia and Sudan, Afghanistan finally achieved the impossibly possible: the distinct ranking of the most corrupt country on Earth. In 2005, Afghanistan was 117th. Just three years later it was 176th. By the time 2012 rolled around, the country became the world champion.


For most of the population, and those who take the development aid profession seriously, life got more aggravating. The average Afghan began paying bribes not just for the privilege of faster bureaucratic processes when dealing with the Afghan officialdom, something they actually are sympathetic to doing according to the United Nations, but for the privilege of simply living. And they had to acquire a whole new vocabulary to do it in.


APPRO has counted 26 different expressions alerting service users that they should reach for their wallets. “Move yourself this way and that,” they were told. “Walk with those who walk on foot.” “Scratch yourself.” “Give me my pen fee.” “Who’s going to worry about my problem?” So Afghans – and increasingly internationals working in Afghanistan – danced, walked and scratched themselves accordingly, learning the new language of corruption in a country where picking an Afghan penny off the street that didn’t belong to you under the Taliban rule resulted in the loss of hand not a decade earlier. For generations before the Taliban, to be of a family with a reputation of bribe taking was cause for stigmatization and shame within the community.


In 2013, the opposite is true: not taking bribes is often seen by others as not being capable or worthy. The rationale, we have been told in our many probings, is that it’s ok to take foreigners’ money. It’s ghanimat, or war trophy.


And as corruption settled in, it permeated deeper into Afghan society. Afghans found themselves paying bribes to renew or cancel their business licenses, pay or not pay their taxes, secure their sons and daughters’ weddings or send them to public universities, and to secure scholarships for them to study in adjacent or far away countries. They found themselves paying bribes just so they wouldn’t have to pay more bribes later. APPRO has been told of numerous instances of private sector agents protesting against paying bribes on religious and moral grounds and demanding to speak to higher up authorities, only to be told that by pursuing their protest at higher levels even higher bribes would have to be paid to clear themselves. One presidential aspirant puts corruption on almost the same level as the Taliban in terms of the strategic threat it represents to Afghanistan.


What can be done? Surprisingly, rather a lot. APPRO has been delivering a presentation on corruption in Afghanistan for years throughout Afghanistan, European countries, the European Parliament, and the British House of Commons. After each presentation, APPRO has collected the comments from the participants and updated the presentation, particularly its conclusions and recommendations. What APPRO is sharing with you below as recommendations are based on these comments from Afghans and non-Afghans who have heard the presentation and see corruption as a serious threat. But, before APPRO gives you the shopping list, it is important to recognize the importance of acting responsibly and avoid pointing fingers. That is too easy and not very helpful. No one is a saint in this mess and we all have a positive role to play – we can all repent by persuading the different actors to act differently:


For International Donors and Governments:

– We need to find ways of promoting pride and ownership by working through existing structures but institute practical oversight and mentoring mechanisms. This approach would increase longer term sustainability and self – sufficiency.

– International donors who will continue to operate in Afghanistan beyond 2014 should seriously consider rolling a few national and international heads and take some risks in choosing their “trusted” partners to spend the aid budget. But, try to do better with practical oversight, i.e., don’t continuously use international experts without a clue about Afghanistan to do your project evaluations or play oversight or mentoring roles.

– View reconstruction and development in Afghanistan, or elsewhere, as an integrated, long-term package of measures including:

– Inclusion, empowerment, and protection of spaces for civil society organizations to continue to play their role in governance. Sometimes this is as simple of providing continuous funds for civil society organizations that have a proven track record and are in Afghanistan for the long haul.

– Understanding the context (do the research)

– Having reliable systems of checks and balances (use monitoring data)

– Building institutional capacity and agility (rely less on short term expats and use more qualified and committed nationals and internationals for long term programming)

– Changing awareness (make use of honorable and time-tested cultural and religious values to fight corruption)

– Changing funding constraints to eliminate “burn rate” programming and reliance on preferred first tier contractors. Use national organizations for research, evaluations and, increasingly, training and mentoring


For Civil Society and Advocacy Organizations and Political Parties:

– Put corruption on political and civic agenda

– Encourage citizenry to exercise legitimate right to services

– Work with anti-corruption Parliamentarians and religious and community leaders


For the Government:

– Set up genuine outreach mechanisms for citizens’ input on corruption, service delivery, and accountability

– Reform and empower the High Office of Oversight or equivalent organizations to fulfill their role with accountability and authority

– Provide training and mentoring on anti-corruption at all ministries and other government agencies

– Implement budgeting and procurement reform to increase transparency and accountability in the way the government spends donor aid funds and collected revenues

– Justify re-allocation, after approval, of budget lines


For the Media

– Whistle blowing and exposure on corruption are not enough. In addition to whistle blowing, inform the public, help set agendas

– Set up more hot-lines, disseminate learning from the experiences of fighting corruption in other countries such as India, Kenya, and Greece


For the Private Sector

– Develop anti-corruption codes of conduct for businesses in Afghanistan. Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industries (ACCI) with support from international donors such as the World Bank can lead such efforts

– Encourage business to exercise legitimate right to services. ACCI should also lead this effort

– Encourage businesses to act responsibly by paying their taxes. This is a longer term project and would require close collaboration between ACCI, the business community, the Government, and the international donors


Additional Reading: Anti-Corruption Reforms in Afghanistan: What Does The Research Tell Us?


Ahmad Shaheer Anil (APPRO’s Executive Director) and Saeed Parto (APPRO’s Director of Research) co-authored this piece. Posted by Saeed Parto.

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This article does not necessarily reflect the views of APPRO.