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So, yes, we get the idea that Afghanistan is kind of a corrupt place. But really, with the lawlessness and the massive rift between the political elite and everyone else, what else would we expect?

I was part of a meeting that took place in a small village in Paktiya Province. It had been pre-arranged, so all of the village elders came out in force, as did every other male in the village, from age 5 to 85. The village was at the top of a small hill that had a cliff that overlooked the nearby river valley. In fact, it may have looked an awful lot like the village in the banner picture of this blog. As we walked up the goat-trails (easier said than done while in full body armor), the men laid out a giant cloth on the ground and a bunch of padded cushions that were upholstered in red fabric that read, “Japan!”

After the official meeting, we broke into small groups to just chat. I started talking with a man in his early 30s who complained bitterly of politicians doing nothing but hoarding all sorts of money for themselves, playing favorites with projects, and giving public jobs to their family members. Since there was an election coming up, I asked him why he didn’t run for office and try to change things.

He gave me a grin that was somehow proud and sheepish at the same time.

“Because I’d be even worse.”

I had to laugh and he laughed along with me.

Corruption not only happens, it’s expected. But why? Because power corrupts?

Well, partially. People are people, after all, whatever culture we may have been raised in. But there are some particularities of Afghanistan that make what we would call corruption a good idea.

First is the expectation of violence. When you’ve lived through 30 years of war and then combine that with a couple thousand years’ worth of empires marauding through your territory, stability is not exactly the status quo. You expect chaos. You develop a mentality of preparing for it. So to protect yourself and your family, you gather all the resources you can and hold onto them (not unlike zombie apocalypse preparedness). In other words, you become a hoarder par excellence.

And if you happen to get into a lucrative position, you take advantage of that and get as much as you can, be it a well in your backyard built by the Americans or a new road to your village or a whole bunch of jobs for your family so you can collectively stockpile as much money as humanly possible before this government goes the way of all the ones before it.

There’s another element to this, though too. Across the Middle East and Central Asia, honor and shame play a major part in society. Sure, honor is important to us all, but in these areas, honor is much more tied up in the family than it is in the US or Europe.  If my brother or cousin or third cousin twice removed does something dishonorable, it doesn’t really reflect on me, but if I live in Afghanistan, my cousin’s shame is my shame. And shame isn’t just about being looked down on, but think Scarlet Letter levels of excommunication. If I am shamed, basic things like getting married, getting a job, etc. are jeopardized.

So to avoid situations like that, you work really hard to earn honor and prestige. Across the Mid East/Asia region there are various formal and informal honor codes that create systems for people to earn honor. Many are pretty similar across countries. Hospitality is a big element of them (to refuse it is to seriously insult your host). Another is protecting guests in your home as fiercely as if they were your family. A third is providing sanctuary, even to your worst enemy.

And charity is a big one (it’s actually a requirement in Islam). Charity is especially important if you are a powerful or wealthy person. If you have money (or tons of cropland or goats or whatever), you earn immense honor by sharing your wealth, most particularly with your extended family. It earns you loyalty, respect, prestige. It can make you into a Big Man/tribal leader/warlord/sheikh/chieftain/etc. It’s a pretty common pattern around the world. A leader is someone who shares his wealth.

It’s not so different in our culture, really. Every time I go to visit the undisputed matriarch of my family (my little Italian grandmother), she presses $20 into my hand. She has done so since before I can remember and it doesn’t matter that I’m now over 30 with an income that’s probably three times her retirement pay. I wouldn’t dream of refusing it. It’s what she does, a point of pride and, yes, honor. (Besides, if there’s any doubt as to where I get my stubbornness, let me assure you, it’s that side of the family.)

Where it becomes problematic in Afghanistan is when people who live by that ideal get into political power. Taking care of their extended family via what we would call favoritism and nepotism is, in their eyes, the right thing to do. You take care of your own. Period. It just happens that when you do that with public funds and positions, people tend to get a little persnickety about it. While admitting that they would do the exact same thing.

Don’t get me wrong, by no means does everyone do this. There are a lot of Afghans who believe the political system should be free of this kind of thing. They don’t play favorites, they don’t succumb to nepotism, they push hard for anti-corruption investigations and convictions. There just also happen to be a lot of people who have decided to do the best they can for themselves. And for those guys, when they help their people out, they consider it to be the smart, honorable, expected thing to do.

It only becomes “corruption” when you’re the one not getting a cut.

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