Enormous aid disbursements to the unregulated NGO sector produce unparalleled opportunities for criminal Afghans and Western companies to enrich themselves at the expense of the Afghan population. Although few reliable statistics exist for how much money the ISAF channels through NGOs, this sector presumably absorbs all ODA not spent through the GIROA central budget, or money spent through PRT/USAID budgets. With post-surge ODA averaging $10 billion per year, that could be up to $8 billion per year. As ODA spending surges, so has the number of NGOs looking to profit. Many of the NGOs are not even development programs, but rather fronts for private commercial gain and criminal fraud. A 2009 report placed the number of NGOs in Afghanistan at over 4,000. 2009 Presidential candidate Bashar Dost estimated the number at just over 3,000, of which, he said, roughly 350 were foreign based. Policy wonks sometimes call these international NGOs, INGOs. The NGO system in Afghanistan spawned a whole plethora of new acronyms including BINGOs, for business-interest-dominated organizations, and MANGOs, for mafia-associated organizations. BINGOs and MANGOs are indicators of the scale of corruption in the relationship between the NGO sector and the government. In 2010, the Afghan Economics Ministry began investigating cases of fraud. Their efforts disbanded more than 2,000 NGOs for lack of evidence that they were doing anything. After this cleanup there were still more than 1,300 NGOs operating, including approximately 300 foreign-based.
Most of the people employed by these NGOs are Afghans. In the security sector the percentage of Afghans employed is as high as 95 percent. The number of foreign civilians in Afghanistan is quite low, and protecting those individuals is often bigger business than the actual work that they do. As noted above, the number of foreign government employees is roughly 2,000 for the entire ISAF mission. Additionally, there are approximately 3,000 civilian consultants and fewer than 1,000 foreign security guards, of which only 250 are American. Most of the roughly 6,000 foreigners live in relative isolation in Kabul and rarely venture out into the provinces. When they travel outside of the capital, they must do so in heavily armored convoys costing thousands of dollars per month. The security needs of NGOs eat up a large chunk of funding. One foreign security guard says, “If a project has a $100,000 budget, 20 percent of that will be spent on security.” An armored vehicle costs $8,000 per month and a foreign security guard costs $10,000 per month. Comparatively, an Afghan bodyguard will cost around $700, of which the contractor will pay the guard about $220 per month. Security for an NGO office can be as high as $600,000 per year.
Registered NGOs cash in on millions of dollars in contracts but they end up spending most of the money on security and high consultant salaries. Although the number of foreigners in Afghanistan is relatively low, they are very noticeable. This fact draws more attention to them and increases security costs. Local Afghans always notice the ubiquitous white SUVs that ferry the foreigners and their guards around town. Locals call them the “$1,000 men,” because of rumors that they earn more than $1,000 per day in consultancy fees. These rumors are often true. One report found a British firm, Crown Agents, paid one man $207,000 for a 180-day rotation, and another man submitted a bill to the Foreign Office for $242,000 for 241 days. That amount was ten times the salary of the Minister in charge of the ministry he was advising. The official USAID consultant fee is $840 per day.
High consultant salaries, flashy spending, and decadent lifestyles alienate Afghan civilians and reinforce their differences. High salaries allow the foreigners in Afghanistan to enjoy a very wealthy standard of living compared to their surroundings. Many foreigners rarely leave the exclusive neighborhood where they live, places with names like “Green Village” and “Pleasantville.” US development expert William Strong, a Californian who won a contract to survey Afghanistan’s land registration system, lives in a compound north of Kabul that costs $12,000 per month. At night, the foreigners dine in exclusive restaurants that serve alcohol, something that is repugnant to Afghan culture and technically illegal. Aid workers consume all of this wealth in a flashy, high-profile way, and the Afghans notice. Mahdi, a former NGO driver turned Afghan National Army (ANA) soldier says, “The foreigners here are acting like movie stars. They drive big cars, use big guns.” Part of the way foreigners in Kabul live is understandable. They work in very stressful jobs, and at the end of the day, they want to cut loose. The men want to enjoy a beer and the women, who are required to cover-up during the day, want to wear revealing clothing and feel sexy. However, their need to appease earthly desires and the massive amount of money it takes to protect such hedonism only serve to exacerbate the social inequalities between Afghans and the foreign occupiers.
Much of this type of spending is “donor-driven,” meaning it is dependent upon the donor’s need to spend, and not the recipient’s need for a specific project. Journalist Edward Girardet blames this framework for a good portion of the development-related corruption. He says that money is not everything to Afghans but they are responding to the situation presented to them. He believes that if NGOs were more frugal with their spending, Afghans would have more respect for the development program and would be less likely to exploit the NGOs.
Afghans do not trust GIROA because they end up getting most of their basic services from NGOs, but they also do not trust the NGOs because of the Western lifestyles. They know that GIROA could have used the billions of dollars spent in Afghanistan to bring real change instead of enriching opportunists and criminals. Afghans also know that the US, its troops, and most of its development staff will leave eventually. When that happens, the West will leave Afghan civilians to choose between a corrupt and ineffectual GIROA and a brutal, reactionary Taliban regime. The US is racing against time to build government capacity before that happens, but the rapid increase in troops, ODA, and the accompanying security sector costs only serves to destabilize the country further.
The Future of Corruption in Afghanistan
Defeating corruption in Afghanistan requires the West to refocus the development effort with smaller, better-managed projects and long-term financial commitments. Beyond a certain point, the level of corruption in Afghanistan is proportional to the level of development aid, which is in turn dependent upon foreign troop levels. Officials worry that fewer troops will not be able to handle the insurgency, but they also admit that corruption fuels violence. Defense analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies believes that a good portion of the corruption problem will organically fade as foreign troop numbers draw down. Although, he says, anticorruption and oversight improvements will be necessary if the development effort is to continue beyond 2014.
An increasing number of Afghans question the benefit they receive from the development program. Many see the American presence as an obtrusive and expensive mission that foisted a corrupt and inefficient government on them while dramatically increasing crime and violence. To a certain degree, they are correct. Ismatullah Shinwari, an MP from Nangarhar Province says, “We have NGOs working in different sectors, but they are corrupt and grabbing money and no one knows where all the money goes. I think, if they leave, there will be no effect. If we get less money than now and we have a transparent administration, I think we will be better than we are now.”
Ultimately, stopping corruption is a matter of political will. For Afghanistan that will require a significant reduction in both troops and aid money. Additionally, the ISAF should redesign its development effort to better balance military and civilian objectives, improve oversight and contracting procedures, and develop a better partnership with local Afghans. Likewise, GIROA should work to improve police and judicial functions and make a serious effort to prosecute high-level officials. There are numerous examples of countries that were in or near the corruption trap but changed their ways and have gone on to achieve relative development success. Recent examples include Botswana, Estonia, and Liberia. Rebuilding Afghanistan is a noble aim, but there are many environmental factors limiting the chances of success. In fact, given the geographic constraints, higher troop levels, and huge aid commitments are further destabilizing the country.
By significantly shrinking the aid budget, the West can starve the malign actors of the resources they need to further their corrupt schemes. In the short term, this would result in a sharp contraction of Afghanistan’s economy, but in the long term, reductions in aid will undermine the robber-baron warlords who have profited so handsomely from the current development program. This will also help foster sustainable and organic economic growth. Regardless of troop levels or aid commitments, Afghanistan will remain poor and racked by insurgency for a long time. Considering this, the West should acknowledge that only a small, efficient and committed development program can build a prosperous and stable Afghanistan.