Afghans paid nearly $1bn in bribes last year, and corruption has become far more widespread since 2006, according to a new survey from a Kabul-based NGO.
The study, conducted by Integrity Watch Afghanistan (IWA), found that 28 per cent of Afghan households paid bribes to obtain at least one government service. The average value of the bribes was $156 - nearly one-third of the country’s per capita income.
IWA's study was based on interviews with 6,500 people in all but two of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. Paktika and Nuristan were the two provinces not surveyed.
Yama Torabi, the co-director of IWA, said more than half of Afghans who paid bribes did so at least twice last year. And he said the numbers masked the real depth of the problem, because some of the Afghans surveyed did not use government services in 2009.
"Not every household is asking for government services in one year," Torabi said in an interview from Kabul. "For example, corruption in land sales only touches 15 per cent of households... but what is the likelihood that a household will sell land in a given year?"
Police, courts most corrupt
Corruption appears to be worst amongst Afghanistan's justice and security agencies, according to the survey. Ten per cent of Afghans reported paying bribes to obtain court decisions or police protection. Many of those bribes were expensive and nearly half of them cost more than 2,500 afghanis ($55).
"When you go to the judiciary, there is a much higher likelihood you will pay a bribe, than, say, when you go to the education department," Torabi said.
Thirty-eight per cent of Afghans said they were personally affected by police corruption [AFP]
Forty-two per cent of respondents said the interior ministry was the most corrupt in Afghanistan, followed by the justice ministry at 32 per cent.
Those findings will be a particular concern to US and Nato commanders in Afghanistan, who are trying to strengthen the police and courts to provide security against the insurgency. Fifty per cent of those surveyed said the government’s rampant corruption was actually helping to strengthen the insurgency.
"When the justice system is corrupt, people have absolutely no recourse," said Candace Rondeaux, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group in Kabul. "The corruption drives the general population directly into the arms of the insurgency."
Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, has promised to reduce corruption in his government. He established an anti-corruption commission in November, and held a conference on the subject in December.
But Rondeaux called those efforts "largely cosmetic". And Torabi said the anti-corruption drive has focused on social service agencies - education, health care and the like - while ignoring the police and courts.
IWA's findings suggest that corruption has worsened in Afghanistan over the last few years.
The group conducted a similar survey in 2007, which found the total cost of bribes was $466m - less than half the level it recorded in 2009.
The new survey also found that Afghans are less tolerant of corruption than they were several years ago.
"In 2007, when we did our interviews, we found that people were slightly more tolerant towards corruption, because they believed the salaries of civil servants were very low," Torabi said. "But now the salaries have been increased many times. So people associate the corruption with a life of luxury."
IWA's findings are slightly less stark than those of the United Nations, which released a report on corruption in January. The UN found that Afghans paid $2.5bn in bribes in 2009, and that 59 per cent of Afghans think corruption is the biggest problem facing the country.
The IWA report urged the Afghan government to create a stronger office of oversight, and to toughen the penalties for corrupt officials. Rondeaux also said foreign governments should threaten to cut back on aid unless corruption is reduced.
"I think the only thing the government will understand is the loss of its aid," she said. "You can't keep giving money to a crook."