$1,000 for a kebab? Afghan villages fight corruption.
Locals trained by an NGO gather to scrutinize officials' books.
Kalan Gazar, Afghanistan
In this remote area amid the rough-hewn mountains of northern Afghanistan, a man gingerly steps forward at a village assembly.Skip to next paragraph
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"Why did you spend so much money on cement?" he asks village leaders – the first time he has so openly questioned authority.
They check their records and reply: "The cement is high quality, and it was the best deal we could find."
The man sits back down, apparently satisfied.
This bland exchange – one of many at a meeting where local officials must defend their use of public funds – is part of a ground-breaking program to bring accountability to a nation ranked one of five most corrupt by Transparency International, a corruption watchdog. The problem extends from top officials to local village leaders, and it's fueling anger at the government and building support for the insurgency.
Now, villagers trained by an international nonprofit are tackling corruption at the local level through "social audits." They gather to inspect the books of shuras, or elected councils, that oversee many villages and receive funds from the government and NGOs to undertake development projects. In many villages that uncover corruption, residents voted their shuras out in subsequent elections.
"For the first time, we feel like we have some control in our lives," says one villager, Rahimah, who like many Afghans has only one name. "We can finally hold our leaders accountable."
"It used to be that our shura would get money and we'd have no idea what happened to it," says Begum, another villager here in Kalan Gazar, in northern Baghlan Province. In some areas, money earmarked for a development project had simply vanished.
Learning to play accountant
To help build Afghans' capacity in dealing with such problems, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) introduced the idea of social audits – meetings that scrutinize the books of the village council – in hundreds of villages.
The villagers select a "social audit committee," made up of those whom the community deems the most honest and industrious. AKDN then trains the committee on how to inspect the shura's financial transactions – the training is needed because many villagers are illiterate or have never examined financial dealings before.
Committee members follow the money trail, tracking down receipts, interviewing laborers, and grilling shura members. Their efforts culminate in a village-wide assembly where committee members present their findings, then invite members of the community to ask questions of the shura or levy allegations. The assembly closes after the village votes on whether they are satisfied with the shura's dealings.
"This process is crucial to bringing a vibrant democracy to Afghanistan," says Sujeet Sarkar, head of the AKDN's Local Governance Program.
The village shura receive one-time grants for development projects from the government, so thus far the social audits have taken place once in each participating village.
A $1,000 kebab and nice hotel
In the Kalan Gazar social audit, locals gathered to appraise the implementation of a micro-hydro generator, which harnesses energy from a river to bring electricity to the village, and a program that trains women in tailoring.