LONDON – Half of all Afghan adults paid at least one bribe to a public official over the course of a year to cut through red tape or get help with poor service, the U.N. said Tuesday in a report that documents the extraordinary depth of corruption in Afghanistan.
Afghans paid nearly $2.5 billion in bribes — worth almost a quarter of the country's GDP — in the 12-month period ending last autumn.
The average bribe cost $160 — a hefty sum in a country with a per capita income of nearly $500, according to the report, based on interviews with thousands of people across Afghanistan.
Most of those surveyed said they could not expect a single public service without paying favors. Many felt it was "normal" to pay extra for services, better treatment or avoiding fines.
Bribes were requested and taken by politicians, prosecutors, tax officers — anyone with even the most modest level of power to yield, from the humblest clerk at the office in charge of driver's licenses to, by many accounts, the highest levels of government.
Most of the payments went to police, judges and other local officials, but Afghans were also asked to bribe teachers in public schools and doctors and nurses in government hospitals.
The report by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime comes as the U.S. and its partners develop plans to bolster President Hamid Karzai so he can restore public trust and turn back a resurgent Taliban. American officials have long maintained that public outrage over government corruption and inefficiency has driven many Afghans into the ranks of the insurgents.
"The Afghans say they don't have anybody to go to," the program's executive director, Antonio Maria Costa, said as he presented the report in London. "Law enforcement officials are by and large the main culprits."
Karzai has acknowledged that corruption exists, but says the problem has been exaggerated abroad and occurs in many countries. He has maintained that the international community in Afghanistan is also guilty of corruption, wasting aid money on overpriced consultants and kickbacks.
The issue took on new urgency after the Aug. 20 presidential election, which U.N.-backed auditors said was marred by widespread fraud in favor of Karzai. He was proclaimed president two months later after his last challenger dropped out of a planned runoff, claiming the vote would not be fair.
The U.S. and other countries contributing troops and aid are meeting in London next week for a major conference aimed at increasing support for the Afghan government as the U.S. and its NATO allies ramp up their military commitment. The report seemed timed to influence the policymakers — and to remind them of the importance of addressing the problem.
One respondent reported that bribe collectors often troll outside government buildings, approaching people needing a passport or a drivers license. They promise a fast fix with the men behind the desks, producing results in days for governmental processes that normally take weeks.
"He takes money and of course he will distribute it with those who are sitting inside offices," the report quoted the unidentified man as saying.
The report was based on interviews conducted last year from August to October with 7,600 Afghans in 12 provincial towns — or about one third of the provincial capitals — and more than 1,600 villages around Afghanistan.
The U.N. said one in two adults reported paying at least one kickback to a public official. More than half the time, the officials made explicit demands for cash. On other occasions, they asked more subtly for alternate types of payment like livestock.
On average, victims of bribery reported having to pay almost five favors a year. The report estimated from these figures that in total, Afghans paid $2.49 billion in bribes over the 12-month period, or 23 percent of the national GDP of $10.6 billion.
Although the average bribe worked out to $160, an entrepreneur who can pay $100,000 for a license to open a business can skew the results of 1,000 people paying $10 each to get a birth certificate.
Only 9 percent of the urban population believed corruption was worth reporting to authorities — probably because the authorities themselves are corrupt.
Costa said the entrenched corruption was fueling the lucrative drug industry.
"Drugs and bribes are the two largest income-generators in Afghanistan," he said. The country's opium trade last year was worth an estimated $2.8 billion.
Costa said the lack of trust in public officials was prompting Afghans to look for alternate providers of security and welfare. The weakening of traditional justice administered by village elders could mean that more people will be drawn to violent forms of retribution such as Sharia religious law, he said.
Karzai's government has tried to tackle corruption in the past — with little success. An initial anti-corruption body was disbanded after it became known that its head had been convicted and imprisoned on drug charges in the United States. Another office was launched last year with promises of high-level trials, but Afghans continue to list government corruption as one of their biggest problems.
The non-governmental organization Transparency International last year ranked Afghanistan 176th out of 180 countries in its annual poll that assesses the degree to which corruption is perceived to exist among public officials and politicians. The only countries ranked lower were Haiti, Iraq, Myanmar and Somalia.