As anti-corruption measures lag in Afghanistan, U.S. looks to grass-roots effort

Criticism is rising in Washington about the coherence of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. But troops on the ground have different measures of success.
By Ernesto Londono
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 17, 2010; 10:19 PM

JALALABAD, AFGHANISTAN - Khalis Shinwari doesn't have arrest powers, lacks an official mandate and works unarmed.

But the volunteer inspector, assigned by local elders to identify cases of graft and shoddy craftsmanship on development projects, might represent the best hope of stamping out corruption in a country where it has become all but institutionalized.

Stung by a series of setbacks in their efforts to fight corruption in Afghanistan, U.S. officials have begun putting more stock in grass-roots approaches.

While graft in top political circles has long angered Afghans, many say routine corruption such as bribery and malfeasance by local officials does even more to discredit this country's Western-backed government. Corruption and poor governance in many Afghan provinces are helping the Taliban and other insurgent groups gain ground across the country.

Residents in this eastern city point to a legion of examples: shoddily built schoolhouses where walls have begun to crumble and students are now taught outside; a new hospital where the doors are too narrow to accommodate beds; and a would-be irrigation system that is now a miles-long stretch of caked mud.

"The people are tired of this," Shinwari, 26, said on a recent morning as he inspected a three-story school building under construction - a rare example of a project on track and on schedule. "The people are angry. But to whom can they complain?"

U.S. officials here have come to see corruption as one of the chief obstacles to legitimizing and expanding the reach of the Afghan government.

So far, however, U.S. anti-corruption efforts in Afghanistan have led to more setbacks than successes, leading some Afghan and U.S. officials to argue that the United States should focus on a bottom-up approach instead of trying to reform from above.

The local inspectors model is a rare success story. Integrity Watch Afghanistan, a nongovernmental organization, began creating the watchdog groups in 2008. The concept was simple. Village elders were asked to assign trusted residents to act as monitors for development projects, many funded by international donors. The Kabul-based organization trained the monitors but does not pay them a salary. The assignments made the monitors - and the local councils that appointed them - direct stakeholders in the outcome of projects.

"Corruption is so widespread and common in Afghanistan that, unless you include the population in the battle against it, you will not win," said Karolina Olofsson, head of advocacy and communications for Integrity Watch Afghanistan, which receives funding from the government of Norway.

The strategy

When monitors spot cases of fraud or faulty construction, they bring it to the attention of local councils and supervisors at Integrity Watch. Their involvement with projects has made graftand corner-cutting rare, Integrity Watch officials say, because builders and contractors do not want to be publicly humiliated.

The group has trained monitors in 45 cities and villages, boosting oversight on more than 55 projects. Although that represents a tiny fraction of the billions of dollars in development aid that is being poured into Afghanistan, it has had a profound effect on how communities see corruption and their role in fighting it.

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