LONDON (Reuters) - Corruption costs Afghans $2.5 billion a year, a United Nations agency said on Tuesday, with the scale of bribery matching Afghanistan’s opium trade.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said a national survey it conducted showed Afghans were more concerned by public dishonesty than insecurity or unemployment.
“Bribery is a crippling tax on people who are already among the world’s poorest,” UNODC’s Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa said in a statement, adding the scale of corruption was equivalent to nearly a quarter of the country’s economic output.
He urged Afghan President Hamid Karzai to “urgently administer tough medicine based on the United Nations Convention against Corruption which he pushed so hard to ratify.”
U.S. President Barack Obama and other Western leaders have pressed Karzai to root out corruption in his administration.
The report was released nine days before an international conference on Afghanistan in London where Karzai is expected to face more calls to tackle graft from countries that have sent troops to help his government battle Taliban insurgents.
The London conference should set clear benchmarks for the Afghan government on corruption, Costa said.
Karzai, when he was sworn in for a second five-year term in November after a tainted election, promised measures to fight graft. But he has also defended his record on corruption, saying the issue had been “blown out of proportion” by Western media.
The report, based on interviews with 7,600 Afghans conducted between August and October last year with people in 12 provincial capitals and more than 1,600 villages around Afghanistan, found that graft was part of everyday life.
In the past year, one Afghan out of two had to pay at least one kickback to a public official such as a police officer, judge, prosecutor or member of the government.
The average bribe was $160 in a country where economic output per capita is just $425 a year.
In total, Afghans paid out $2.5 billion in bribes over the previous 12 months, equivalent to 23 per cent of Afghanistan’s Gross Domestic Product and similar to the proceeds of Afghanistan’s opium trade, the report said.
This was similar to the revenue of the opium trade in Afghanistan in 2009, which UNODC estimated at $2.8 billion.
Citizens were asked for bribes when they needed a document or a license, to have their rights protected in courts or to receive medical treatment, the report said.
Costa urged Karzai to turn the High Office of Oversight and Anti-Corruption into “an independent, fearless and well funded anti-corruption authority. At the moment, this is not the case.”
Public officials should be vigorously vetted, including through the use of lie detectors; public servants should disclose their incomes and assets; and governors and local administrators “with proven records of collusion with shady characters” should be removed, he said.
He called for transparency in public procurement, tenders and political campaigns, and for tighter regulation of financial institutions to prevent money laundering.
Editing by Dominic Evans