It’s going so badly, let’s do more of the same!

Efforts to curb corruption in Afghanistan are failing, says a new USAID report. Based on dozens of interviews and a comprehensive review of existing studies and polls, the report describes the sources of corruption, which include the huge volume and variety of international aid pouring into Afghanistan, 30 years of conflict that have weakened state institutions and disrupted social relationships, and Afghanistan’s role in the illegal opium trade. Afghanistan is now the fifth most corrupt country in the world (following a rapid ascent from number 42 in 2005) according to Transparency International figures.

The report allows that on the whole, efforts to fight corruption in Afghanistan are failing to do the trick: “Seven years after the fall of the Taliban government…corruption has become a system, through networks of corrupt practices and people that reach across the whole of government to subvert governance.”

But the report does not detail specific failings of any recent USAID or other donor-funded activities (nor are failings to be found among the success stories that pass for information on the Afghanistan country page.) Could USAID explain how concerted efforts are failing to defeat corruption as a whole when each individual project is successfully meeting its targets? (Curiously, the consulting firm contracted to write the report is also being paid to implement a four-year USAID project to fight judicial corruption in Afghanistan.)

One of the six recommendations for future action in the report is to provide more resources and support for the High Office of Oversight (HOO), the anti-corruption agency which has until now has shown an “apparent unwillingness” to go after high-level corruption. The report notes that “often the officials and agencies that are supposed to be part of the solution to corruption are instead a critical part of the corruption syndrome.” How is the solution to aid money being stolen to give additional aid money to those who are stealing it?

The report, which was released to little media coverage in March, comes at an inconvenient time for the Obama administration, which has recently announced plans to increase aid to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to funnel more of that aid through the government as both a sign of increased trust and a way to build government capacity (see for example Ken Dilanian's article on the report in USA Today). In fairness to USAID, political pressure surely has a lot to do with the way aid money is spent in Afghanistan.

It’s great news that the international community is recognizing how bad corruption has become in Afghanistan and resolving to renew the fight against it. Efforts to build “governance capacities in transparency and accountability;” fight corruption where it impacts people in their daily lives; and change “the culture of corruption”—as the report proposes—are sorely needed. But given the sorry state of the status quo, there is a distressing use of the words “continue,” “increase,” and “expand” throughout the recommendations. If something hasn’t worked in the past, why do we assume that more of that same thing will work in the future?

p.s. When we called USAID's Afghanistan desk to get their perspective on the report's findings, we were told that our inquiries needed to go through the press office. Fair enough. But it's two days later and we're still waiting...