Implementation of the Anti-Corruption Strategy remains patchy

By: Sayed Ikram Afzali, Executive Director of Integrity Watch Afghanistan | @SIAfzali

The Afghans have to deal with the scourge of corruption on a daily basis in their interaction with different state institutions, Integrity Watch Afghanistan assessments reveal.

Most of the people believe corruption is a major reason for the expansion of the insurgency as well as the promotion of a harsh interpretation of the Sharia and which contributes to the radicalization of society. Our National Corruption Survey reveals that, every year, citizens are forced to pay a large portion of their incomes in bribes to access public services. Other forms of corruption include kickbacks and embezzlement which occurs in the procurement of service delivery as well as the existence of ghost soldiers, teachers, doctors, and other government servants, whose salaries are pocketed with impunity by corrupt officials.

There is no doubt that both citizens and state institutions have a role to play in combating corruption. However, it is the primary responsibility of the government to control the scourge and provide an environment for citizens and civil society to grow and prosper.

Although the government has taken some steps to reduce corruption, such as creating oversight of procurement processes and have passed laws, including a whistleblower protection law and access to information law, which will hopefully, better empower the media and civil society, a lot of ground remains to be covered. The National Strategy for Combating Corruption, which was passed more than a year ago, has not been successfully implemented. There has been minimal progress without any sense of urgency.

Although government reports indicate that more than 90 percent of the benchmarks were completed successfully, our assessments show only about one-third of the targets were achieved — most of which were merely ticking boxes. The quality of the benchmarks is so bad that some of them are not even linked to the goals set out in the strategy. In many cases, it is not clear how achieving the benchmarks would result in a reduction of corruption, such as moving a department from one government institution to another.

The anti-corruption strategy process and outcome was marred by three major challenges: (1) Lack of a clear and shared vision, (2) lack of independent institutions to oversee its implementation and (3) lack of a comprehensive and effective approach to fighting against corruption. For any anti-corruption strategy to be successful, the three Ps — prosecution, prevention and public engagement — should be taken into account simultaneously. The last one is particularly important for Afghanistan since winning public trust is critical not only to the fight against corruption, but also to restoring citizen trust in state institutions.

However, trust cannot be restored if officials within the Presidential Palace attempt to alienate civil society from the policy process or only engage them symbolically. Illegally removing civil society from a committee to select members of the Anti-Corruption Commission has greatly damaged the trust between civil society and the government. There are programmes at the local level, such as the Citizens Charter initiative, which could become an important vehicle for social accountability and to engage citizens in the fight against corruption.

However, public engagement in the fight against corruption should not be limited to any specific programme. The government must ensure that social accountability mechanisms for improving service delivery are institutionalized.

Access to Information and Whistle-Blower Protection laws should not remain on paper. Implementation mechanisms should really work in terms of supporting those protected under these laws and prosecuting those violating them.

Publicly auditable complaint mechanisms should be established at all levels so that citizens can voice their concerns with the government responding in a timely manner, closing the feedback loop.

The authorities must make a sincere effort to engage citizens and civil society groups in the fight against corruption if it is really serious about restoring public trust in the government. This is a must for the government’s own survival.

This Spotlight was adapted from a speech by Sayed Ikram Afzali, executive director of Integrity Watch, at the Geneva Conference on Afghanistan during a side meeting organised by the Embassy of Denmark in Kabul.