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Afghanistan corruption: How one town battled a shoddy school and won

Afghanistan corruption is widespread. Some activists say efforts to help ordinary Afghans resist the powerful may prove more successful than targeting big names.

By Staff writer / August 20, 2010

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (r.) speaks during a meeting with US senator John Kerry at the Presidential Palace in Kabul August 20. This week Karzai has vowed renewed efforts to combat corruption.

Yuri Cortez/Reuters


Jabal Saraj, Afghanistan

This week Afghanistan vowed to combat corruption, after Sen. John Kerry and Gen. David Petraeus turned the screws on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to get serious about the contentious issue.

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The US has aimed high, focusing its firepower at both foreign contractors and Afghan leaders. Federal prosecutors are investigating alleged overbilling by the Louis Berger Group, a New Jersey-based contractor handling more than $1 billion in reconstruction contracts in Afghanistan. The US is also backing an Afghan anticorruption task force facing blowback from President Karzai for the targeting of top officials.

While sending the powerful to prison has its benefits, teaching ordinary Afghans how to resist the powerful may prove to be more successful. Proponents of this approach argue that could do more to establish Afghan democracy than much-hyped elections.

A group of Afghans held a successful sit-in after they discovered a contractor using shoddy bricks and cement on a girls' school. The protest came about as part of a quiet effort to help citizens keep officials and businessmen on the straight and narrow.

“The quick approach is we are going to put the bad guys in jail. This is nice, but symbolic. A second bad guy will come,” says Lorenzo Delesgues, director of Integrity Watch Afghanistan (IWA), whose training led to the sit-in. “The answer is to create social pressure.”

A nonprofit, IWA works in 45 communities and is expanding into another 105. Staff identify one reconstruction project to monitor in each community. Residents then choose two volunteers to visit the construction site at least twice a week. They are armed with cameras to take pictures and video interviews with foremen. In best case scenarios, they get their hands on copies of the contract.

Putting the pressure on local corruption

In January, monitors in the city of Jabal Saraj in northern Afghanistan went to a worksite for a new girls' school being financed by NATO through a provincial reconstruction team. The school’s foundation was complete and building materials just arrived.

“We at first checked the bricks out: If you hit them together they would break,” says Abdul Mateen, one of the monitors and local teachers. Metal sheeting for the roof was flimsy, the cement poor.

Mr. Mateen says his group told the workers to stop, but they didn’t listen. So the monitors left and rounded up residents. They contacted local officials and police and brought more than 50 men to the site.

Work stopped. Foreman Nabi Kohistani explains that he called his boss, an Afghan contractor, telling him “so many people are complaining.”

When the boss showed up 90 minutes later, Mateen and three other monitors “went through everything, we showed everything.”