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As a “culture instructor,” one of my favorite techniques to get students to learn is to make them teach classes. You really learn something when you have to stand at the front of a room and try to make someone else understand it. And, frankly, that’s four fewer hours of lecturing for me–all I have to do is sit in the back of the room and think up smart-sounding questions. (Incidentally, kudos to the students who found this blog and some of my other work and directly quoted me in class…I’m a sucker for academic flattery.)

One of the topics I give to students in my Afghanistan class is “corruption.” That’s all the direction they get, one word, but they do a pretty good job of running with it. Many talk about corruption around the drug trade (which is a blog post or three in and of itself), and many talk about the bribery and extortion Afghans have to live with in their daily lives and as they try to get promoted in the military or police.

What many don’t bring up–because it’s ridiculously complicated–are nepotism and favoritism. When you run a private business here in the US, it’s no real surprise if you bring in your family and friends to be part of the senior leadership (it might not be smart, but it’s not uncommon). However, it’s generally frowned on if you do the same thing when you work for the government. Oh, you’re inner staff might be people you know, but public positions should go to people who are qualified, not people you’re related to. It’s not that it doesn’t happen, it just makes us a bit uncomfortable. (Think the Kennedy and Bush families.)

In other countries, though, that’s par for the course. When Hamid Karzai became president of Afghanistan, his brothers, cousins and close friends suddenly found themselves in charge of pretty significant public posts. Some even got into high-profile private sector institutes like, oh, say the Kabul Bank (which recently made headlines by squandering $900 million on a get-rich-quick scheme that benefited only a couple of choice individuals).  And it’s not just the president, but it happens all the way down to local politics. Having family in politics a pretty good gig. In fact, when I was out around election time asking people if they knew who the candidates were (for the Parliament), very few did, and those that did were excited about it:

One man said, “I know Nadr Khan Katawazi and am going to vote for him! He’s my cousin!” He said it with a pretty eager gleam in his eye and with good reason–if his cousin managed to win, it would be nothing but luxurious government positions for the rest of the family (or at least a leg up into the system for starters).

And corruption of the getting-cool-jobs-for-your-buddies variety isn’t the only thing that permeates the system. There’s also favoritism. Oh boy, oh boy.

I was visiting Khayr Kot District in Paktika Province, where the district governor was a pretty good guy. He was liberal and genuinely wanted to see the government become strong and more effective. He was from a village in the district and so, unlike many of his counterparts who valued the job for its upward mobility potential and not really taking care of the population, this guy was really invested in helping out the people of his district. Everyone in the district benefited from his commitment and he was one of the best governors I met.

It just turned out that some people benefited a little more than others. As I traveled around the district talking to people, everyone was decently happy that they had projects and development that the governor had initiated. But there was always a “…but” after they told me how happy they were.

“We’ve had a couple of projects out here and its really nice. Maybe one or two a year in the district…but, the governor’s home village gets a lot more than everyone else’s put together.” As in, his village got maybe four projects, while the entire rest of the district got one or two. They acknowledged that one or two was better than what most other districts got…but…well. It’s still not fair.

But why such rampant corruption? Well, some of it is good, old-fashioned human greed, but there’s a deeper answer than that. What is it, you ask? That’s a lesson for another day.

So stay tuned next time for the exciting conclusion to “Corruption! It’s How We Roll!”

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