UN: Afghans forced to pay billions in bribes

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LONDON (AP) — Corruption in Afghanistan is so entrenched that Afghans had to pay bribes worth nearly a quarter of the country’s GDP last year, a United Nations report said Tuesday.

Afghans paid $2.5 billion (€1.7 billion) to bribe public officials over the past 12 months, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said in a report on corruption in the country.

“Drugs and bribes are the two largest income-generators in Afghanistan,” the program’s executive director, Antonio Maria Costa, said as he launched the report in London. The country’s opium trade last year was worth an estimated $2.8 billion.

“I urge the new Afghan government to make fighting corruption its highest priority,” Costa said.

The United States and other countries contributing aid and troops to Afghanistan are waiting for President Hamid Karzai to form a new administration capable of combating corruption and instituting the reforms needed to garner public support and defeat the Taliban.

Afghan lawmakers have twice rejected the majority of Karzai’s nominees to run ministries, and Karzai’s spokesman said it was unlikely a new Cabinet would be in office this month.

The U.N. report said one person in two had to pay at least one kickback to a public official — whether a policeman, politician, judge or government official — between 2008 and 2009. Many paid to cut through red tape or to get help with poor service.

More than half the time, the request was an explicit demand for cash. The average bribe cost $160 — in a country where the GDP per capita was just $425 per year, the report said.

Costa said the lack of trust in public officials was prompting Afghans to look for alternative 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.

The report was based on interviews with 7,600 people in 12 provincial capitals and more than 1,600 villages around Afghanistan between autumn 2008 and autumn 2009.

It said that, even though corruption was pervasive, only 9 percent of the urban population believed it was worth reporting to authorities.