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INTERVIEW-Afghan minister launches corruption crackdown
(For more on Afghanistan, click on [ID:nAFPAK])
By Yara Bayoumy
HERAT, Afghanistan, Nov 17 (Reuters) - By clamping down on bribery, firing corrupt employees and privatising bloated state enterprises, Afghan Commerce Minister Wahidullah Shahrani hopes to slowly lift the cloud of corruption from Afghanistan.
Graft is endemic in Afghanistan -- ranked the second most corrupt country in the world -- and was highlighted after a fraud-marred election that won President Hamid Karzai another five years in office but also severely damaged his reputation.
While the West has been complaining loudly about what Karzai must do to tackle graft, Shahrani says he has been methodically spring-cleaning his ministry since taking office nine months ago.
By introducing privatisation strategies, measures to streamline bureaucratic business processes and liquidating or privatising state enterprises, corruption will fall and business in Afghanistan will prosper, Shahrani said.
"One of the major sources of corruption in our ministry used to be the government-owned petroleum enterprise," Shahrani told Reuters in western Herat, Afghanistan's commercial hub.
"I fired until now -- just in the petroleum enterprise -- in the first week, 180 people, including the director general ... who was one of the most corrupt individuals in the country."
Shahrani said he also fired seven people working in his own ministry and has appointed new department heads he described as more educated, reformist and transparent in their operations.
He said other major sources of graft were corrupt government officials, an "old guard" in state bureaucracies, weak legal and judicial institutions and political pressure from different parties to keep people in their jobs.
The West has kept up sustained pressure ahead of Karzai's inauguration on Thursday, with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying at the weekend his government must do better. A day later Afghanistan's Interior Ministry announced the formation of a major new anti-graft unit. [nSP384527]
ALMOST AS BAD AS SOMALIA
Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index said public sector corruption in Afghanistan had worsened over the past two years and was now seen to be more rampant than in any country in the world except Somalia. [nLF239872]
Bribery in particular is rampant, from policemen taking cash from passersby to government officials taking a cut from business profits or state workers demanding "fees" to process paperwork.
Central Business Registry (CBR) units are being set up across Afghanistan to act as a "one-stop shop" for entrepreneurs wanting to register their businesses legally for a flat fee of $10.
It used to take Afghans up to two weeks and hundreds of dollars worth of bribes to get their business registered.
"The registration used to be done through the ministries of commerce, courts, finance and justice. There were a lot of signatures, complicated procedures and unfortunately that was also subjected to a lot of irregularities in bribes," Shahrani said in Herat, where he opened Afghanistan's fourth CBR.
"Now it takes less than two hours and they don't have to go to any other entity except the Ministry of Commerce."
Shahrani said he hopes to privatise or liquidate some 75 state-owned enterprises which employed about 12,500 people.
"Most of them are employees there, it doesn't mean they're working. They just get their salaries," he said, adding that 8-10 firms had been liquidated and one privatised so far.
Shahrani said there was huge potential for the private sector to grow, particularly in the transport, marble manufacturing and petroleum industries. He said he aims to create 1 million jobs over the next 10 years by pushing through with a project for supporting small- and medium-sized enterprises.
(Editing by Paul Tait)
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