Guest Post: Tackling Health Sector Corruption—Five Lessons from Afghanistan

GAB welcomes back Mark Pyman, Senior Fellow at the London Institute for Statecraft, who previously served as Commissioner of the Afghanistan Joint Independent Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (MEC). He contributes this post together with Hussain Rezai, a researcher at MEC.

Despite the horror stories, interesting things are happening on tackling corruption in Afghanistan. Besides the progress (discussed in previous posts) on education and procurement, a major anticorruption initiative has been underway in the Afghanistan health system since June 2016. The initiative, which is another surprising (if qualified) anticorruption success story in a very difficult environment, offers five lessons for anticorruption practitioners and health ministers in other countries. Continue reading

Guest Post: Afghanistan’s Radical–and So-Far-Surprisingly Successful–Public Procurement Reforms

Today’s guest post is co-authored by frequent GAB guest contributor Mark Pyman, Senior Fellow at the London Institute for Statecraft and former Commissioner of the Afghanistan Joint Independent Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee, together with Sohail Kaakar of the Afghanistan National Procurement Authority.

Afghanistan may be one of the most corrupt countries in the world, but it is also where some of the world’s most innovative anticorruption solutions are being implemented. Case in point: Afghanistan’s reforms to its public procurement system.

In Afghanistan, government procurement accounts for 19% of GDP and almost 50% of the national budget. However, procurement corruption has long been endemic, with many figures taking large cuts from almost every contract, and many contracts being little more than money-extraction schemes. But in 2015—at a critical juncture, when Afghanistan’s government was faced with unprecedented public pressure due to insecurity, recession, withdrawal of international troops—the government adopted significant reforms to its procurement system in order to curb corruption and improve government performance. (The immediate catalyst for the reform was a particularly corrupt military fuel contract, but the reforms go well beyond addressing this one incident.)

After a brief review of alternatives, the Afghan government decided on a radical reform based on a single regulatory body and a centralized procurement system. Continue reading

Guest Post: We Need To Talk About Donors

GAB is delighted to welcome back Mark Pyman, Senior Fellow at the London Institute for Statecraft, who also served as Commissioner of the Afghanistan Joint Independent Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee until November 27, 2017.

When it comes to fighting corruption and promoting accountable government, donors provide funds, expertise, and support, often over many years. They face many difficult challenges, and we all sympathize with the hard issues they have to contend with. Yet at the same time we have to forthrightly acknowledge that, for all their good intentions, when it comes to corruption, international donors easily become part of the problem. Donors, researchers, politicians and grantees have all been too silent on this.

Let me illustrate this with problems at one large, well-intentioned donor program in Afghanistan, the Comprehensive Agriculture and Rural Development Facility (CARD-F) Program. This Program, funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and Denmark’s aid agency DANIDA to the tune of $120 million over two phases, was established to increase rural employment, incomes, and business opportunities through the design and implementation of projects, such as infrastructure work (such as building irrigation canals), provision of grants to producers and processors, establishment of greenhouses and poultry farms, and training for farmers.

Between March and October 2017, the Afghanistan Independent Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (MEC) made an inquiry into corruption concerns at CARD-F, based on allegations from five whistleblowers. MEC is the premier anti-corruption entity in Afghanistan, set up by Presidential decree in 2010, led by a Committee of six (three eminent Afghans and three international experts), and with an Afghan Secretariat of some 25 professional staff. It is funded by international donors. MEC found plenty of malpractice, including nepotism and cronyism in the Management Unit; multiple irregularities in the awarding of grants and procurement contracts; poor monitoring provided by expensive UK companies (that, to be blunt, were not doing their job); and international (UK) contractors with a built-in incentive to use up more of the available budget for their own “technical assistance.” MEC found that only 33% of CARD-F funds in the first phase reached the intended end users, instead of the planned 60% (the other 40% planned to going on technical assistance and administration; eventually 67%). Moreover, not one of the five separate whistleblowers whose concerns were passed to MEC felt protected enough to complain through the CARD-F program, nor through DFID or DANIDA. At least two of these whistleblowers were fired, and others felt they had to leave.

At the same time the donors vigorously opposed MEC’s plan to do the inquiry, suggesting that MEC surely had other more important priority topics to examine, and that MEC shouldn’t be concerned because the donors had already done an audit (which was not shared with MEC) in response to a previous whistleblower. Not-so-subtle pressure was applied: MEC’s own core funding, which comes partly from DFID and DANIDA, would need to be “reviewed” if MEC persisted. Ultimately, MEC had to request the President of Afghanistan to intercede, before DFID Afghanistan offered its support to MEC’s inquiry.

Any organization doing or sponsoring work in a tough environment like Afghanistan can expect to have corruption issues. But trying to hide the problem, and then to bully it away? As an anticorruption professional who has seen DFID do good work elsewhere in the world, and indeed in Afghanistan, I was really shaken. Less naïve than me, the Afghans are well aware that such internationally sanctioned malpractice is taking place, and they too see this as evidence of dishonesty and hypocrisy.

The huge disconnect between donors’ generally good intentions on the one hand and the, frankly, perverse bureaucratic politics that drives donor agencies is a known problem. Most donors know what is going on in their programs, but feel driven to cover themselves with expensive and often ineffective technical veils – fiduciary risk assessments; supply chain mapping, due diligence, layers of oversight – to protect themselves from charges of lax supervision.

An honest conversation about this is surely overdue. Here are ideas on four of the key topics to start the discussion: Continue reading

Guest Post: Tackling Corruption in Afghanistan’s Education Sector

GAB is delighted to welcome back Mark Pyman, Senior Fellow at the London Institute for Statecraft, who also served as Commissioner of the Afghanistan Joint Independent Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee until November 27, 2017.

One of the successes of the last fifteen years in Afghanistan has been the rise in the numbers of students attending school, especially girls. According to the Afghan Ministry of Education, more than 9.2 million children, 39% of them girls, are now enrolled in school (though these statistics continue to be disputed, with alternative enrollment estimates ranging between 6 and 10 million). Yet the Afghan government, the citizenry, and external observers are all well aware that the education system remains beset by endemic corruption. As one parent put it in a focus group discussion: “A suicide attack isn’t the most dangerous thing for us, because a few people will die…. It is the unprofessional and unknowledgeable teachers that are most dangerous for us because they kill the future of Afghanistan.”

A major new report from the Afghanistan Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (known as MEC), carried out at the request of the Minister of Education, evaluates the corruption vulnerabilities across the education system and how they need to be addressed. The study, conducted in cooperation with the Education Ministry, visited 138 schools in nine provinces, and conducted over 500 interviews with a range of stakeholders (including Ministry officials, provincial education officials, teachers, parents, students, and others), as well as 160 focus group discussions. These interviews and focus group discussions assessed a broad range of education corruption issues, including both corruption that arises at the level of schools and districts (such as students paying for advance copies of papers, or teachers using nepotistic influence to avoid having to turn up) and corruption in central government education policy and management (such as corruption in teacher appointments, school construction, and textbook procurement). Some of the report’s main findings are as follows: Continue reading

Transparency International’s Anti-Corruption Pledge Tracker Is Badly Flawed. It Needs To Be Redone from Scratch.

In May 2016, at the London Anticorruption Summit sponsored by then-Prime Minister David Cameron, participating countries issued declarations announcing a variety of commitments—some new, some continuations of existing policies—to further the fight against international corruption. Of course, all too often governments fail to follow through on their grandiose promises, so I was heartened by Transparency International’s announcement, in September 2016, that it had gone through all the country declarations, compiled a spreadsheet identifying each country’s specific promises, and would be monitoring how well each country was following through on its commitments.

Last month, a year after TI published the spreadsheet documenting the list of summit commitments, TI released a report and an interactive website that purport to track whether countries have followed through on those commitments. So what do we learn from this tracking exercise?

Alas, the answer is “almost nothing.” TI’s “Anti-Corruption Pledge Tracker,” in its current form, is a catastrophic failure—a slapdash, amateurish collection of arbitrary, often inconsistent judgments, unsupported by anything that resembles serious research, and (ironically) non-transparent. This is all the more surprising—and disappointing—given the fact that TI has done so much better in producing similar assessment tools in other contexts. Indeed, at least one such recent tool—TI’s Government Defense Anti-Corruption Index—provides a model for what the Pledge Tracker could and should have looked like. Given the importance of tracking countries’ fulfillment of their summit pledges, and TI’s natural position as a leader on that effort, I dearly hope that TI will scrap the Pledge Tracker in its current form, go back to the drawing board, and do a new version.

I know that sounds harsh, and perhaps it seems excessive. But let me explain why I don’t find the Pledge Tracker, in its current form, worthy of credence. Continue reading

Can Indirect Questioning Induce Honest Responses on Bribery Experience Surveys?

As I noted in my last post, bribery experience surveys – of both firms and citizens – are increasingly popular as a tool not only for testing hypotheses about corruption’s causes and effects, but for measuring the effectiveness of anticorruption policies, for example in the context of assessing progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals’ anticorruption targets. Bribery experience surveys are thought to have a number of advantages over perception-based indicators, greater objectivity chief among them.

I certainly agree that bribery experience surveys are extremely useful and have contributed a great deal to our understanding of corruption’s causes and effects. They’re not perfect, but no indicator is; different measures have different strengths and weaknesses, and we just need to use caution when interpreting any given set of empirical results. In that spirit, though, I do think the anticorruption community should subject these experience surveys to a bit more critical scrutiny, comparable to the extensive exploration in the literature of the myriad shortcomings of corruption perception indicators. In last week’s post, I focused on the question of the correct denominator to use when calculating bribery victimization rates – all citizens, or all citizens who have had (a certain level of) contact with the bureaucracy? Today I want to focus on a different issue: What can we do about the fact that survey respondents might be reluctant to answer corruption questions truthfully?

The observation that survey respondents might be reluctant to truthfully answer questions about their personal bribery experience is neither new nor surprising. Survey respondents confronted with sensitive questions often have a tendency to give the answer that they think they “should” give (or that they think the interviewer wants to hear); social scientists call this tendency “social desirability bias.” There’s quite robust evidence that social desirability bias affects surveys on sensitive topics, including corruption; even more troubling, the available evidence suggests that social desirability bias on corruption surveys is neither constant nor randomly distributed, but rather varies across countries and regions. This means that apparent variations in bribery experience rates might actually reflect variations in willingness to truthfully answer questions about bribery experience, rather than (or in addition to) variations in actual bribery experience (see here, here, and here).

So, what can we do about this problem? Existing surveys use a range of techniques. Here I want to focus on one of the most popular: the “indirect questioning” approach. The idea is that instead of asking a respondent, “How much money does your firm have to spend each year on informal payments to government officials?”, you instead ask, “How much money does a typical firm in your line of business have to spend each year on informal payments to government officials?” (It’s perhaps worth noting that the indirect questioning method seems more ubiquitous in firm/manager surveys; many of the most prominent household surveys, such as the International Crime Victims Survey and the Global Corruption Barometer, ask directly about the household’s experience rather than asking about “households like yours.”) The hope is that asking the question indirectly will reduce social desirability bias, because the respondent doesn’t have to admit that he or she (or his or her firm) engaged in illegal activity.

Is that hope justified? I don’t doubt that indirect questioning helps to some extent. But I confess that I’m skeptical, on both theoretical and empirical grounds, that indirect questioning is the silver bullet solution for social desirability bias that some researchers seem to suggest that it is. Continue reading

Reforming the ANDSF Payroll Management System: The Limits of a Technological Solution

In my last post, I discussed the how the problem of “ghost soldiers”—soldiers who are inaccurately listed as on active duty, for purposes of generating salary payments that are then stolen—adversely affects the capacity and readiness of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). To make things worse, not only is the government making salary payments to soldiers who don’t exist, but some ANDSF personnel who do exist are not receiving the full salaries they are due. Approximately 20% of Afghan National Police (ANP) and 5% of Afghan National Army (ANA) personnel are paid in cash through so-called “trusted agents,” who are supposed to facilitate salary payments to ANDSF personnel when electronic funds transfers (EFTs) are not possible, but according to reports, corruption in the system could take as much as half of an employee’s salary. And while most ANDSF personnel receive their salaries via EFT to their personal bank accounts, this only reduces the threat of pilfering in the final distribution stage; it does nothing to correct for errors, either intentional or inadvertent, generated earlier in the process.

What can be done about these problems? The U.S.-led multinational military organization working with the Afghan government to reform and strengthen the ANDSF, known as the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A), is applying a technological band-aid that focuses on implementing a set of computerized systems that track personnel and pay. While these measures are helpful, they do not fundamentally change the incentive structures that drive corruption, and so are unlikely to represent a long-term solution, particularly after direct U.S. involvement winds down.

Continue reading