When Corruption Can’t Be Fixed

In countries like Afghanistan, there is no government without patronage. It’s time for Washington to face up to this reality.


As President Obama prepares to leave office, his mission to stabilize and reconstruct Afghanistan is failing. Violence has surged as troops have been drawn down. This year’s spring offensive brought Taliban attacks in major cities. The outgoing head of the International Red Cross said that Afghanistan now faces the “worst humanitarian crisis” since the beginning of the fifteen-year-long war. The U.S. is quietly preparing for a prolonged military presence.

This unfortunate situation exists despite the roughly $115 billion the United States has appropriated since 2002 for Afghanistan’s relief and reconstruction — or perhaps because of it. That’s the conclusion of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a government watchdog tasked with providing independent oversight of how those funds were managed. In its recently released “lessons learned” report, SIGAR argues that the U.S. elevated short-term security goals over fighting corruption while simultaneously injecting massive amounts of aid into the Afghan economy with few controls. This caused a dramatic spike in corruption that undermined the legitimacy of both the Afghan government and the U.S. effort. SIGAR goes on to recommend that the U.S. government make anticorruption a top priority in its work abroad, and includes specific suggestions of how it can do so. But it’s not clear that this is the right lesson to take away from Afghanistan, much less that this lesson should be applied globally.

Corruption has topped the news about Afghanistan for the last fifteen years. Even as aid poured in, shrink-wrapped pallets of U.S. dollars and gold bars were leaving the country by air. In 2010, Kabul Bank collapsed after nearly one billion dollars disappeared through a pyramid scheme and dubious investments such as the $160 million spent on luxury villas in Dubai for the bank’s shareholders. So there’s little dispute that Afghanistan is, as David Cameron put it, “fantastically corrupt.” What’s less well understood is why the corruption is so pervasive — and what should be done about it.

One way to understand corruption is as the result of criminal acts committed by individuals. This invites a straightforward response: more laws, stiffer penalties, and better enforcement. While these approaches might help, the SIGAR report correctly recognizes that in Afghanistan and similar countries, the problem is not a few bad apples but an entire system of behavior. In a 2011 USAID survey, 60 percent of Afghans reported being asked to pay a bribe in the past year.

A deeper analysis of corruption looks to impoverished and dysfunctional government institutions that are unable to manage money or personnel, pay salaries, or deliver services. In response, international donors seek to modernize government procedures, train personnel, build infrastructure, and purchase equipment. As in so many other countries, however, the problem of corruption in Afghanistan goes even deeper. The government holds onto power not despite the corruption but because of it, making the problem political rather than technical. The government hands out jobs, contracts, and other benefits to its key supporters, who in turn pass them on to their friends, family members, dependents, and political allies. Government jobs are valued beyond their meager salaries as opportunities to divert assets, collect bribes, or sell decision-making authority.

This is why Afghanistan’s former president, Hamid Karzai, told the New York Times that he used C.I.A. money to cover rent, hospital bills, and scholarships for government officials and members of the presidential guard — and described this as “nothing unusual.” In this setting, technocratic reforms alone are unlikely to work because, as the SIGAR report notes, they require “the cooperation and political will of Afghan elites whose power relied on the very structures [the] anticorruption efforts sought to dismantle.”

American support didn’t introduce corruption to Afghanistan, but there seems to be a consensus that it made things worse. SIGAR faults the U.S. for injecting more money into the Afghan government than it could handle. When such governments receive a windfall, patronage networks expand, norms that once constrained behavior disappear, the scale of bribery increases, and everyone scrambles more vigorously than ever for access to government offices that have suddenly become even more valuable.

The tough question is what the United States should do when, in the words of Karzai’s National Security Advisor, “corruption is the system of governance.” The answer to this question depends critically on beliefs about what is possible that are rarely articulated, much less supported or defended.

SIGAR’s answer, in short, is that the United States should try harder — not just in Afghanistan, but everywhere. Its report recommends that the U.S. make anticorruption a top national security priority and pursue it consistently. It faults the U.S. for turning a blind eye to complaints and for mistakenly believing that fighting corruption more forcefully would require making compromises on other goals. And it recommends that, in analogous situations, the United States should press for anticorruption reforms consistently at the highest levels.

SIGAR is spot on when it identifies the political heart of systemic corruption. But attacking the basis of a government’s power is a tricky business. Such an approach only makes sense if there’s a better alternative. The United States’ goal in Afghanistan has been to build a liberal democracy that holds power by winning the people’s support through the effective provision of public goods and services. Implicit in this project, and therefore in SIGAR’s understanding of corruption, is the idea that this type of government is available at any time to anyone — that it has no prerequisites and only requires people to change their behavior.

But there is simply no evidence that this kind of government is an option for all countries at all times. Governments as poor as Afghanistan’s can’t hold power this way. For one thing, they lack the revenue to provide public goods and services to most people. As one of the poorest countries in the world, Afghanistan is an extreme case. In 2016, the government’s domestic revenues amounted to less than $60 per person per year (compared to an estimated $20,000 per person for the United States).

Where governments can’t rely on support that comes from providing public services, they must rely on other means of holding onto power, such as distributing private goodies to supporters. They may be unable to govern parts of their territories at all. When they can’t pay regular and adequate salaries, they tacitly allow civil servants to collect their own. Under the legal systems that they have copied from (or had imposed on them by) much richer countries, this is usually a criminal act. But a 2012 United Nations survey found that 68 percent of Afghans thought it was appropriate for government officials to ask for small bribes to top up their salaries.

If there is such tension between the laws and the government’s behavior, maybe the laws should change. No one is a champion of patronage, but if poor governments must rely on it to govern, perhaps we should ask what the best possible patronage system would look like. A “better” patronage system would be legal and transparent, would not create very large concentrations of wealth or systematically exclude particular groups, and would deliver some critical services. Similarly, when a government can’t pay adequate salaries, perhaps some public service providers should be allowed to collect fees legally, like lawyers and notaries. If the government is unable to provide a service at all, perhaps the service should be handed over entirely to the private sector. The divide between public and private is a matter of policy. What’s needed are workable rules, limits, and transparency.

The options of the world’s poorest governments for holding power are limited. Instead of attempting to enforce current anticorruption standards more vigorously and more widely, perhaps the U.S. effort should focus on helping Afghanistan and other poor countries have the very best government that they can, given their constraints. Further changes can come as the government’s options widen. In the meantime, having an impossible standard is the same as having no standard at all.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the School of Advanced Military Studies, the U.S. Army, or the United States government.

Photo credit: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images

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