Last week was a bit of a reality shock for me. I’ve been pretty optimistic about my work working on girl’s education and of development in Afghanistan in general so far. However, last week I learnt that perhaps I’ve been complacent because of working with Sadiqa and being surrounded by the women of Noor Educational Center who are not only strong in their convictions and beliefs but in adhering to a strict code of what’s right and wrong. Then reality struck and corruption reared its ugly head, bringing to the fore a question that I’ve been trying to come to terms with for a while. How do you deal with corruption in development work? How do you build a long-term sustainable model of development and reconstruction tied to transparency and rule of law in countries where average government and even private salaries seem to necessitate an additional stream of income, most commonly obtained through bribes.
The question is even more problematic in Afghanistan, undergoing large-scale reconstruction, and where the influx of foreign money has raised prices by 1000 times. Consider this: the average government salary is about $600/month but the average rent for an apartment in a not so great neighborhood of Afghanistan is about the same. How then do you feed your family, pay for additional necessities and live a life of dignity? This is if you’re lucky enough to find a place to live in Kabul. The city has become so crowded that even illegal construction in the surrounding mountains is not enough to house all the inhabitants.
So do you give in and pay the bribe, chalking it up under another category of development assistance. Sadiqa and Jamila jan are vehemently opposed to it. They’ve both lost grants because they refused to pay bribes to Afghan contractors hired by large private and foreign government agencies. According to them, the bribes have ranged from 5% up to 10% of total funds. However, the refusal to pay the bribe is not such a simple matter either and doesn’t end with a refusal to pay money. The contractor can malign the NGO to outside agencies unfamiliar with local NGOs and dependent on the contractor for local information. Compounded with the rumor mill that constitutes the informal business and development network in Afghanistan and serves as the basis for many decisions and deals, this can be the death knoll for a small, local NGO.
I appreciate Sadiqa and Jamila’s faith that things will work themselves out and the loss of one grant will be replaced by another, but I can’t help but wonder if karma/fate/call it what you will really works out that neatly on the larger scale.
Posted By Shirin Sahani (Afghanistan)
Posted Jul 2nd, 2005