by Sam Lazerwitz
When Washington, DC received more than one foot of snow this winter, the DC government dispatched snowplows to clear the roads. In 1996, the last time Washington had a blizzard, the government did not. Corruption hurt the snowed in people of DC, and now, it is harming Afghans.
Washingtonians now take many of the city’s public services for granted. The trash gets picked up, the streets are cleaned, fires are put out, and neighborhoods are policed. As citizens, we forget how necessary these services are to living comfortably and productively. The municipal government uses the money from citizens’ taxes to provide governance, security, and all the other services that allow us to function
For years, however, the system did not work this way. Money allocated to schools, parks, road maintenance disappeared, whether into the pockets of local officials or elsewhere. Washingtonians watched municipal employees drive around in German sedans on potholed roads or contractors clutching fur coats while shuffling across a snow covered streets. Washington was a corrupt city.
Washington is not as conspicuously corrupt as it used to be, and the city is better because of it. Not only do we receive our money’s worth in public services, but also the DC government has pursued true reforms. Washington’s massive effort includes improving the city’s public education as well as opening many new charter schools. The problem with corruption is that it prevents governments and states from using money efficiently and effectively, further preventing any progress. Recent history of the DC education budget shows, if a government struggling with corruption spends more money; it does nothing except make a few people richer. Because Washington dealt with corruption, the city was able to move forward.
Corruption is the greatest problem in Afghanistan. This is both my opinion and the opinion of the Afghan people according to a survey conducted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. To compile Corruption in Afghanistan: Bribery as Reported by Victims, UN officials interviewed 7600 people across the entire country, and recorded their concerns and experiences with corruption. The survey discovered that “59 per cent of Afghans view public dishonesty as a bigger concern than insecurity.” More startling, the UN reports that 52 per cent of adult Afghans have had to give a bribe to a public official in the course of the last year, with an average amount of US$ 160.
Corruption may not seem to be such a pressing concern on the individual level from these statistics. For a Washingtonian, US$ 160 is a small, but not insignificant amount of money. In Afghanistan, US$ 160 is 37.6% of Afghanistan’s GDP per capita (US$ 425). Further, when aggregated, Afghan citizens paid $2.5 billion in bribes in 2009, or almost a quarter of the country’s economic output.
As westerners, we see security and economic development as the greatest problems in Afghanistan today, and, from our perspective, we are correct to believe this. Most Americans have only seen Afghanistan in pictures of bombings in Kabul and other cities or in pictures of mud brick houses in Afghanistan’s rural areas. We know only that Afghanistan is poor and insecure; therefore poverty and insecurity should be the biggest concerns. Our government focuses aid and military efforts on solving these two issues, but we have yet to solve them.
Corruption is why the government’s efforts have failed to yield a safe and secure state. How can we expect Afghans to trust their government when their elections are fraudulent? And how can we expect Afghans to support the efforts of the police when over 25 per cent of adults have paid a bribe to them? Stability and success in Afghanistan is impossible if the Afghan people see Taliban rule as only marginally worse than the Karzai government – at least the mullahs did not take bribes.
Yesterday, the German government announced that it would send 500 more troops to Afghanistan. While additional deployment is a noble gesture, it is not a solution. US government and European governments must focus on the eradication of corruption instead of eradication of the Taliban. Afghans continue to support the Taliban, because it is a viable alternative to the government. During the reign of the Taliban, there was a swift and fair system of justice, and the government protected property. Many Afghans do not support the Taliban and their stringent Islamic ideology, but they do not support the democratic regime either. The US government needs to emulate Washington in its rebuilding of Afghanistan. For Afghans to trust their government, justice needs to be a cashless transaction, elections need to be free and fair, and officials cannot be asking for bribes. As Washington demonstrates, once people trust that their government is corruption free; then they trust their government to solve other greater problems.
The Taliban is still a threat to Afghans and the United States, but so is our indifference towards corruption.