Combating Corruption?

We aren't going to stamp out all corruption in Afghanistan. But it can try to reduce it says Steve Saideman.
By: /
July 11, 2012

Roland Paris has an excellent column in The Globe and Mail explaining the faux fight against corruption in Afghanistan. While I largely agree with his analysis, I want to make one point here about the Afghanistan experience that will be relevant in future interventions: We need to assess, and then prioritize, the forms of corruption that are most problematic. Because we need not intervene in fully functioning countries with low corruption, such as Norway, and because civil war and state failure facilitate the expansion of organized crime and corruption,[1] this challenge will always be quite severe for interveners.

There was never a remote chance that the international community could move Afghanistan from being among the most corrupt countries in the world to the least. Certainly not overnight, and certainly not over a decade. During a brief visit to Kabul and Kandahar in 2007, I asked a development adviser to the Canadian mission the following question: “Which forms of corruption are most damaging to the war effort, and to the effort to build a self-sustaining Afghan government, and which forms of corruption are not as problematic?” The adviser’s head practically spun as she asserted that no corruption could be tolerated. Certainly, that makes sense in theory, but the realities of Afghanistan were not only that there was so much corruption that we could only hope to make a dent, but also that a relentless pursuit of all corrupt individuals would mean undermining some people’s way of life, including key power brokers.


Corruption takes many forms. Contractors may give kickbacks to politicians in exchange for getting a contract to do some road-building or other construction project. Government officials may rake off a bit of the equipment or pay headed to the personnel below them in their agency’s hierarchy. Police may staff checkpoints that compel people to pay a fee for using that part of the road. The list goes on and on – people can be quite inventive as they seek to make a buck or two (or five million).

This cannot all go away overnight. As a result, the international community needs to figure out from this experience how to reduce, but not eliminate, the forms of corruption that are most pernicious to the larger effort of building a government. For instance, it might make sense not to fight kickbacks, as these may be less likely to undermine the entire effort than police who are most visibly abusing their power by demanding money, or worse. We need to do more work to figure out which parts of this problem are both most tractable and most relevant for the larger mission.

A good example of an innovation that seemed to have worked is this: giving soldiers and officers ATM cards from which to draw pay rather than giving hunks of cash to the top officers to distribute down below. This does not eliminate corruption, but it makes a dent and allows the folks doing the fighting to get paid, which might improve retention and reduce (but not eliminate) the number of soldiers going AWOL.

Of course, there is something about scale versus moderation that matters, too. When it becomes known that large bricks of American $100 bills are being flown out of the country, that helps to delegitimize the government. Perhaps one of the lessons here is to encourage moderation in corruption.

Yes, this all sounds entirely too cynical, but the truth is that Canada and its allies could not turn Afghanistan into Norway if they tried. Also, corruption exists in advanced democracies without causing state failure (although the bridges of Montreal raise some questions). Given how hard it is to provide humanitarian assistance and try to facilitate the building of some political order in failed and weak states, it is especially important that interveners try not to make the situation worse. Because the interveners come in with a lot of cash, and because some of them are interested in consuming that which organized crime provides (drugs, prostitution, etc.), there is the risk that their presence could feed into the existing corruption, rather than reduce it. So, the first step is to do no harm. The second step is to figure out which pieces of the problem to attack first. That involves both practicality and politics. We know now, more than ever, that corruption can threaten the success of an intervention. We have also learned, however, that trying to change a society overnight is not going to work, even in places that are less problematic than Afghanistan.

[1] Peter Andreas has a great book demonstrating this to be the case in Bosnia, including how the interventions empower and enrich the criminals: Blue Helmets and Black Markets: The Business of Survival in the Siege of Sarajevo (Cornell University Press, 2008)

Photo courtesy of Reuters