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.

Yuri Cortez/Reuters
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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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