Saturday, February 12, 2011

Afghanistan: Budget transparency is said to have improved, but corruption remains a big headache

This article originally appeared in the Institute for War and Peace Reporting,

Budget transparency is said to have improved, but corruption remains a big headache.

Afghanistan has made significant advances in opening government finances up to public scrutiny, but serious concerns still remain about administrative corruption, according to experts.

The country’s rating on an annual international survey of budget transparency – which scores countries from zero to 100 – has risen from eight in 2008 to 21 in 2010. Of the 94 countries monitored by the Open Budget Index, Afghanistan was ranked 73rd, 15 places higher than in 2006.

“Although lagging behind most of the 94 countries surveyed, Afghanistan has shown an important effort to increase budget transparency to provide citizens the opportunity to hold the government accountable for its management of public funds,” according to Integrity Watch Afghanistan, IWA, an anti-corruption watchdog.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development defines budget transparency as the "full disclosure of all relevant fiscal information in a timely and systematic manner".

At the Kabul Conference in July 2010, international donors committed themselves to channel 50 per cent of their assistance through the Afghan government if it met certain criteria, including the introduction of transparency mechanisms and a reduction in corruption.

According to IWA, although the ministry of finance produces most of the key budget documents, some of them are not published on time due to staff resources and shifting donor priorities.

Mohammad Mostafa Mastur, the deputy minister of finance, said that the reason for progress on budget transparency is due to efforts by the ministry to prepare, provide and publish budgetary documents, including documented yearly cash flow, mid-year and end-of-year reports and the budgetary audit.

“Previously, we did not publish these documents although we had them available, because we were not aware of the international budgetary laws,” he said.

Mastur said budget transparency would help with the battle against corruption, “When there is no secrecy about the work of government officials, it will create fear among them and prevent them from bribery and from embezzling the government budget.”

However, he added, improved transparency was not enough to tackle corruption alone, which is estimated to cost around one billion US dollars a year.

Administrative corruption remains one of the major challenges faced by the government of President Hamid Karzai and a source of much friction with the international community.

In 2010, Transparency International, to which IWA is affiliated, deemed Afghanistan the most corrupt country in the world after Somalia.

Yama Torabi, director of IWA, noted that bribery appeared to be on the rise, pointing to a 2010 IWA national survey which indicated that it had doubled since 2007.

Abdul Aziz Aryayi, a senior official in the government’s anti-corruption commission, the High Office of Oversight and Anti-corruption, said that although the improvement in transparency was a positive sign “it is a matter of concern that low-level administrative corruption has increased in the country”.

Aryayi said that over the last year, his commission had identified 200 cases of alleged corruption and had referred them to the Attorney General’s office. The cases involved “high and low-ranking government officials”, he added.

He said the commission was working on a number of different fronts to combat corruption: including legal reforms, service provision simplification, better coordination between government bodies and the setting up of three commission branches in the provinces.

But many ordinary Afghans believe that the problem of corruption is too entrenched for such measures to make much difference.

Shamsollah, a resident of Kabul city, said that foreign donors should demand greater accountability from those who received their funds, adding that while budget transparency could prevent corruption by low-level government officials, it would be harder to tackle that among more powerful figures such as former mujahedeen commanders.

“In fact, the government is made of such individuals,” he said. “Unless the rule of law is not strengthened, the chaos will continue.”

Abdul Wahed Faramarz is an IWPR-trained journalist.