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A three-pronged approach to confront Afghanistan’s corruption

Corruption is not inevitable. Afghanistan should focus on technical, legal, and cultural areas to ease the tyranny of corruption.

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Discussions of corruption in Afghanistan tend to focus on addressing it at the top – to set an example, and because this is where large amounts of money are siphoned off. There is no doubt that Afghan elites and leadership must be held accountable; and sure, putting one or two big name malefactors on trial and sentencing them would send a message. But that effort should not mean putting on hold any effort to clean things up at the middle and lower levels. If citizens could open and run their businesses and manage their daily affairs without being extorted by police, bureaucrats, and officials, life would improve and confidence in the government would increase.

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Confronting mid-level corruption requires three areas of focus: technical, legal, and cultural.

1. Technical

Technical solutions, such as electronic payments, cut out the middleman and reduce opportunities for extortion. Technology could also allow public servants to be monitored, for example, by tracking the number of cases they can process and allowing an incentive system to replace bribes as a source of additional income.

2. Legal

Legal means are often the most difficult to develop and enforce. The media, as one of the better developed institutions in Afghanistan, could help by cooperating with the High Commission to expose corrupt bureaucrats.

The Afghan parliament has independently set up a “Complaints Office.” While it is now just a shabby little room with a paper sign on the door, it is still open for citizen business every day, and the staff make an effort to follow up on reports of wrongdoing. With a little guidance, and perhaps also coordination with the media and the High Commission, this office could become significantly more effective.

3. Cultural

Finally, Afghans need to regain their moral footing. Other countries have shown great success when society simply begins to reject the attitude that it is okay to extort money for services to which the public is entitled. Corrupt individuals need to be shamed, perhaps patterning after India’s “Zero Rupee” campaign, where corrupt officials received “payment” with specially printed bills that resembled the actual currency – but had a denomination of zero.

While we may not soon see high Afghan officials brought to justice on charges of corruption, these three areas of focus could ease the tyranny of corruption on the daily lives of Afghans and rebuild the cultural underpinnings needed for a next and better generation of Afghan leaders and public servants.

Cheryl Benard is the former director of the Alternative Strategies Initiative at the RAND Corporation. Elvira Loredo is a researcher at RAND, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision making through research and analysis.