Foreign aid has flooded into Afghanistan over the past decade and a half, including over $104 billion in US aid dollars alone; indeed foreign aid currently comprises 60% of Afghanistan’s budget expenditures. But despite—or perhaps because of—these immense expenditures, corruption still plagues the Afghan government and economy (Afghanistan ranks 175/177 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index)–and this greatly concerns the Afghan people. Since 2008, the American effort to address corruption in Afghanistan has been overseen by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). SIGAR, currently headed by attorney John Sopko, conducts audits and investigations, and issues recommendations and reports to reduce fraud, waste, and inefficiency. SIGAR’s unique approach—centralized, independent oversight over all agencies involved in Afghan reconstruction—has yielded tangible benefits, including saving almost half a billion dollars through a single audit. Reform efforts by the United States and the international community have improved Afghan legal structures, including by crafting comprehensive anticorruption laws and strategies, though serious problems remain.
Yet maintaining accountability and oversight over foreign aid will be even more challenging as U.S. troops leave. In SIGAR’s most recent quarterly report, Sopko points out that “[l]arge areas of the country . . . will soon be off limits to U.S. personnel due to base closures and troop withdrawals.” Nonetheless, the U.S. will continue providing external financial assistance as Afghanistan even as America’s footprint shrinks, and the United States will continue to foot the bill for much of Afghanistan’s public sector even as the US withdraws all but 9,800 troops by December 2014. What can American policymakers to do address the problem of corruption in development aid to Afghanistan during and after the withdrawal?
At first blush, perhaps not much. The US has struggled to stem misallocation of American funds previously, and its levers will weaken as its presence diminishes. Nevertheless, the US will retain significant influence in the near future, and there are a number of concrete steps the US can and should take to limit the extent of corruption in US development aid to Afghanistan, and to support anticorruption efforts in Afghanistan more generally:
- First, the US should narrow the scope of its foreign aid programs, and focus more of its resources on measuring outcomes and ensuring accountability. The loss of leverage and monitoring capability associated with the withdrawal will require offsetting investments in auditing, oversight, and other efforts to limit corruption and misappropriation, even if this entails reducing the overall amount of money transferred to Afghanistan.
- Second, and closely related to the above point, the US can and should target its aid at a few high-priority sectors, particularly sectors that may contribute more generally to good governance and anticorruption. Prior efforts have been wide-ranging, and driven in large part by necessity—Afghanistan lacked basic governing capacity following the invasion, and security concerns have dominated the anticorruption agenda since then. But now that the US is withdrawing, concentrating more resources in a smaller number of high-priority areas such as education, access to justice, and supporting the development of an independent media and civil society could help the U.S. effectuate lasting change and shore up anticorruption efforts.
- Third, the US can and should reduce its reliance on private actors in dispensing aid. Though the public sector is rife with corruption, some scholars have pointed out that the US government’s over-reliance on private actors in dispersing aid may have impeded the development of public sector capacity. Channeling future expenditures through the government could help in the difficult work of building effective institutions, even if it comes with some short-term costs.
- Fourth, notwithstanding the withdrawal, the US needs to continue to use its influence to press Afghan public officials to comply with Afghanistan’s anticorruption laws. After all, although Afghanistan now has decent laws on the books, laws are only as strong as their implementation, and in Afghanistan, applying written law has been spotty at best. As the scope of the US mission narrows, maintaining pressure on public officials to comport with the laws as written will be key.
Getting the balance right will be hard, but it’s crucial. Otherwise, incompetent and corrupt government could undermine the significant gains Afghans have realized over the fifteen years.