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February 07, 2013

UN: Afghanistan Bribes Totaled Nearly $4 Billion

by Sharon Behn

According to the United Nations, bribes paid in Afghanistan in 2012 totaled almost a quarter of the entire amount of aid the international community has pledged to the war-ravaged country. Although Kabul appears to have made some progress towards reducing graft - a key condition for receiving international aid - the total cost of corruption has increased to almost $4 billion.

The latest survey by the United Nations found that half of Afghanistan's adult population had to pay at least one bribe to a public official last year, a 9 percent drop from 2009. However, the total amount of bribes paid to public officials increased 40 percent to $3.9 billion.

This means the poor are even less able than before to afford basic services.

According to Jean-Luc Lemahieu, head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Afghanistan, the total amount of bribes paid by Afghan citizens in 2012 was double the revenue collected by the Afghan government in 2010 and 2011 to provide services.

"Nobody in this country or interested into this country will deny the fact that corruption is a major problem plaguing government services and the way overall the government is perceived," he said.

Lemahieu pointed out that the survey did not even take into account high-level political corruption.

The U.N. says corruption includes bribery, embezzlement, abuse of power and nepotism, ranging from the very top of government down to low-level officials responsible for providing services to their own people.

One of the areas that has seen a spike in corruption is education. According to the report, more than half of those surveyed said they had bribed a teacher in 2012.

But Mohammad Rafi Amini, director of the Afghan government's anti-corruption office, says the government had made some strides.

He says that in this survey there are areas where corruption is high and some areas where corruption is low, and it even decreased 9 percent, so he thinks this could be positive news for the people of Afghanistan.

Bribes are common throughout Afghan society, and the U.N. report notes that patronage and bribery have become an acceptable way of life in the country. But bribes paid to the government sector are by far the most common.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has blamed the international community for much of the corruption, saying petty graft paled in comparison with the enormous bribes paid by foreign contractors to Afghan government officials, among others.

Thomas Ruttig of the Afghanistan Analyst Network only partly agrees.

"There is so much money pouring in with insufficient oversight that this is definitely fueling large-scale corruption.  On the other hand, it's mainly Afghans, at least now as far as we know, who take the money, so they are as responsible for it as the people who give the money," he said.

Ruttig adds that, although there have been many public statements against corruption when it has been politically opportune, the international community has been willing to look the other way.

"Some Western actors, and particularly the West - no, the U.S. - prioritize allies which can fight the Taliban, regardless of what they are doing in other fields, including corruption and also mistreating their own people," he said.

According to the survey, Afghans consider corruption the second-biggest problem plaguing the country, after insecurity.