Afghanistan seeks anti-corruption support

New Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is seeking a cash injection from donors to help him implement a ground-breaking anti-corruption campaign, but aid experts are sceptical he will get the desired funding.

At the ongoing London Conference on Afghanistan, Ghani is expected to use his keynote speech on 4 December to unveil his reform programme aimed, among other things, at tackling corruption.

A draft of the programme, leaked to the Afghanistan Analysts Network, highlights a series of reforms including an “independent anti-corruption mission with time-bound prosecution powers”, the “reform of the Supreme Audit Agency”, and the formation of a “national procurement board that will manage all large-value contracts”.

In exchange Ghani is expected to ask for fresh financial support from international donors.Yet Mark Bowden, the UN Secretary-General's deputy special representative for Afghanistan and the country’s Humanitarian Coordinator, said he was not confident that Ghani would get the “front-loaded” funding he is seeking in exchange for his “front-loaded reform package”.
 
“In return [for the reforms, he wants] a front-loaded element to future aid and also an increase in the levels of aid. That is where I think the challenge is going to be, as I don’t think there is much new money around,” he told IRIN. “From the traditional donor community, if there is any additional [money] it is only going to be about $100 million.”
 

Split power base  

 
Ghani took power in September after a prolonged election struggle, with his challenger Abdullah Abdullah taking over the newly created role of chief executive. Both men had pledged to combat corruption and waste but Ghani’s commitment has widely been seen as more sincere.
 
He inherited a country that has been the world’s leading recipient of development assistance as a percentage of its national income since 2007 – with US$6.2 billion in 2012 alone – but one that remains among the poorest globally. This is in large part due to what Bowden calls “systemic” corruption.
 
The latest annual corruption perception index by Berlin-based graft watchdog Transparency International, released this week, ranks Afghanistan as the world’s fourth most corrupt country. Another survey found that after insecurity, corruption is the biggest problem for ordinary Afghans. 62 percent said corruption is a major problem in their daily life, up from 55 percent in 2013.

Among the issues are bribery within government ministries, a judiciary so corrupt that many prefer to use the Taliban courts and concerns over mining revenues being stolen or wasted.
 
Since taking over Ghani has reopened a key case into the nearly US$1 billion fraud at Kabul Bank, while the head of the tainted judiciary has been replaced.
 
In his personal style, too, he has shifted perceptions. It is reported that Ghani has taken to ringing officials at 6am and at midnight, even taking his own notes in meetings, while there are rumours of eccentric decisions, including a surprise visit to a police station. Upon finding the station’s head away from his desk in working hours, he called to inquire of his whereabouts. When the police chief said he was in his office, Ghani replied: “really, so am I? Where exactly are you?”
 
Whether the story is correct is somewhat irrelevant. Javed Noorani, a senior researcher at Integrity Watch Afghanistan, said the “ripple effect” had already had a significant impact. “[His actions] are generating a lot of fear. People at a senior level in the Ministry of Interior have reacted to this. Earlier you could buy your rank, a star on your shoulder for $20,000. That has already stopped,” he said.
 
John F. Sopko, the special inspector-general for Afghanistan Reconstruction, which is tasked by the US government with monitoring the use of American money, said the new president’s commitment on corruption was welcome and should be supported by the international community.
 
“Oversight must be made ‘mission critical’ to our reconstruction efforts,” he told IRIN via email. “Efforts to combat corruption and narcotics must be made a strategic priority, given a comprehensive plan, and considered when designing and evaluating all reconstruction programs.”
 

Pressing the flesh

 
Yet Noorani said that while Ghani’s commitment to anti-corruption appeared sincere, he has so far done little to formally flesh out the mechanisms to achieve his goals. “He has taken some very bold steps but he doesn’t have a clear strategy yet,” he said.
 
Ghani is expected to outline such a strategy at the London Conference. In exchange, he is asking for increased support from the international community, as such mechanisms require funding that Afghanistan simply does not have. In 2013 the government’s expenditures were $5.4 billion, but revenues were around $2 billion. The rest came from international donations and loans.
 
Yet donors are disengaging ahead of the planned withdrawal from combat roles of foreign troops at the end of 2014. One report found that in previous wars such as Iraq and Kosovo aid levels fell as much as 65 percent after the withdrawal of international forces.
 
While such a big drop is not expected in Afghanistan, a recent campaign by a coalition of 128 NGOs warned that the world was “forgetting” the country.
 
Likewise since the 2012 Tokyo Conference donors have shifting to so-called direct assistance – channelling at least 50 percent of their funds through Afghan ministries directly. While Ghani is in favour of such moves, many ministries face chronic corruption issues.
 
A report by SIGAR found that million of dollars of US money had been channelled into seven key ministries despite USAID’s own risk reviews concluding they were unable to manage the funds properly.
 
Significant capacity-building mechanisms are needed to help the ministries avoid corruption. Bo Schack, UNHCR representative in Afghanistan, said that building confidence in direct assistance was “easy” in theory – “deal with good governance, deal with corruption, deal with land grabbing in an appropriate manner,” he said. “The devil is in the details. We are talking about a country systemically corrupt, which is an issue that all of us in the agencies have felt as well.”
 
Some aid workers even worry that if the ministries prove themselves incapable of handling the funds without corruption it could be used as an excuse for those donors seeking to disengage with Afghanistan to withdraw their funding. “The fear is that it is all a trick,” said the head of one leading humanitarian body.
 

Beyond the conference

 
All sides admit that while financial support would boost Ghani, tougher battles lie ahead to push through anti-corruption policies at home. Long-time adversaries, Ghani and Abdullah have been unable to agree a government ahead of the talks, despite previous commitments that key positions would be filled. Both men also have within their political alliances powerful figures whose interests would be directly challenged by anti-corruption measures.
 
Stephen Carter, Afghanistan campaign leader at the London-based transparency NGO Global Witness said there were also “low-hanging fruit” - measures that could be implemented relatively cheaply that would increase confidence in Ghani’s plans.
 
Among these, he said, were measures to count money for those leaving the country. In recent years Afghanistan has suffered from chronic capital flight, much of it illegal. Carter said money-counting machines had been procured in recent years to use at Afghan airports but had never been operated.
 
“The US government and other donors provided the equipment to stop the cash flow at the airport. The Afghan government never plugged them in,” he said.
 
Noorani added that Ghani was in need of key victories on corruption to help build momentum. He said the president had perhaps “six months” to make a breakthrough and that international support was crucial in that. “If he does things well… he will set a very good point for the rest of the four and a half years. If they do a poor job, people will lose faith.”
 
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