- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 19, 2009

Note to Hamid Karzai: One country’s corruption is another country’s stimulus package.

Mr. Karzai will be sworn in today for his second five-year term as president of Afghanistan. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made a surprise visit to Kabul yesterday to reaffirm America support and to encourage him to establish a “new compact” with the Afghan people, including a crackdown on corruption. This followed Tuesday’s release of the annual Corruption Perceptions Index from the anti-graft watchdog Transparency International. Afghanistan came in next to last of 180 counties in public perceptions of corruption. Only strife-ridden Somalia ranked lower.

The Obama administration frequently cites corruption as the most important issue facing Afghanistan, but it is not the top issue for the Afghan people. A July 2009 opinion survey by the International Republican Institute showed that corruption ranked fifth among the most important concerns of Afghans, after security (mentioned by 34 percent of respondents), jobs (17 percent), the economy (16 percent), and internal conflicts (5 percent). Corruption tied at 4 percent with illiteracy, poverty, lack of transparency in elections and “other.” Corruption was noted by 2 percent as the most important issue in the 2009 election, and it tied for sixth on a list of priorities for the president in his new term.

Afghanistan has not always been so corrupt. In the 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index, Afghanistan ranked 117th of 159 countries. Western aid may be one of the culprits. Developing countries suddenly awash in billions of donated dollars rarely cope well with their windfall wealth. Afghanistan is a desperately poor country; its $800 per-capita gross domestic product make its people slightly poorer than the average Rwandan.

The United States and European countries have pumped in a combined $52 billion in aid dollars since 2001 to a country with an annual GDP of just over $22 billion. This river of wealth places Mr. Karzai in a tricky position. Aid naturally flows to relatives, government supporters, friendly warlords and other assorted allies as payment for backing his rule. To the Western world, this may stink of corruption, but in developing countries this is regrettably how business is done. Mr. Karzai has to survive in a tough neighborhood, and changing the rules of the game in Afghanistan would require transforming human nature.

A member of Afghanistan’s National Security Council staff told The Washington Times yesterday that part of the problem is Afghanistan’s “absorption capacity,” meaning too much money is being pushed into a small economy. Donors “push for the distribution of money no matter how well the project is monitored, especially when they are under deadlines or when they have to spend money in order to get new funding.” Sometimes international aid organizations engage in corruption, too; our source noted a case where representatives of the United Nations World Food Program arrived with food aid that was supposed to be distributed for free and instead sold it on the black market. Our source counseled going after the high-level corruption, “not after traffic police who get $5 from taxi drivers for permission to work in a certain area of the city.”

The U.S. government should not throw stones. According to Transparency International’s 2009 Global Corruption barometer, the U.S. Congress is the single institution perceived by Americans to be most affected by corruption. The U.S. government reported that $6.4 billion in stimulus money went to 440 nonexistent congressional districts, “creating or saving” around 30,000 phantom jobs. The White House admitted in July that billions of dollars spent in Troubled Asset Relief Program funds might not be traceable.

The sad lesson in all this is that perhaps Mr. Karzai should take a cue from the Obama administration, institutionalize a massive nationwide system of payouts to cronies and call it “stimulus.” He could rename the Afghan capital Chicago for good measure.