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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.

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The boss agreed the materials were poor quality and sent them back, including some 15,000 bricks, says Mr. Kohistani. Mateen watches with pride as a reporter hits two of the new bricks together, giving off only a clink.

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Kohistani says he’s also happy with the outcome: “I work and live here. If I build a bad quality school, nobody will hire me anymore.”

On the way out, the monitors and the foreman have a short disagreement. The monitors point out a newly installed front door knob is meant for a private home, not a high-use public school. The foreman disagrees. An IWA staffer points out that other school projects have used the same knobs and had to replace them after they broke quickly and angered residents.

Such disagreements can sometimes be worked out in meetings between IWA staff, contractors, and local officials. The monitors will present their photos or videos, sometimes with the help of IWA staff trained in engineering or contracting.

Engineers wanted

Some local monitors say IWA needs to send more engineers to help them.

“The NGOs building these things, they have got engineers and they say it’s fine. We don’t know if it’s fine or not, we are not engineers,” says Sher Ahmed Shaheer, a monitor in another part of Parwan Province. He needed no engineer, however, to know that a new girls' school he monitored wasn’t really finished when the builders left without installing a metal roof.

The group is working on recruiting more engineers and in the meantime is trying to get more engineering students to sign up as monitors, says Pajhwok Ghoori, an IWA project manager.

The mayor of nearby Bagram city supports the work of the monitors – even hosts their monthly meetings – and hopes they can put pressure on subcontractors who have spent three years dragging their feet on a police headquarters project. But he’s somewhat skeptical.

“Even if we embarrass them in front of everybody they will not finish in two months,” says mayor Mohammad Yusuf Rehaie. “If they wanted to finish it quickly it wouldn’t take them three years.”

Lesson in 'push back'

But Mr. Delesgues, the IWA chief, says such interventions have worked. His group has used photos of plaster falling off walls and video of windows that won’t close and pitted cement floors to pressure contractors into making fixes. More importantly, it’s a lesson in how to push back as a citizen.

“The main success is making some people start to become citizens,” he says. “By having a sense of ownership among the people, you are able to create this tension in a democracy, which is people-state tensions. Here, it didn’t exist except at an election.”

Next up? Government officials

Though the monitors are focused for now on reconstruction projects, IWA hopes the group can start monitoring government officials too.

The group has come up with a method of tracking corruption within ministries by documenting the official steps a citizen must go through to receive a service or permit. IWA polls citizens about corruption they encounter at each step. The data is then presented to the minister, highlighting the problem departments.

Such efforts can give a minister the ability to pressure a department without having to blame an individual. It can also show whether the millions of dollars spent by foreign donors in “technical assistance” for ministries is actually improving anything.