Legalize Bribe Giving

Written by Abid Amiri | 06 June 2012
Published in the Diplomatic Courier Magazine

Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Index (CPI) ranks Afghanistan the third most corrupt country after North Korea and Somalia. Last week when President Hamid Karzai was in the United State for the NATO Summit in Chicago, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked him about this rampant corruption issue in Afghanistan. As usual, President Karzai’s answer was “it is the contractual mechanism that the US applies in Afghanistan” that encourages bribery, fraud, and corruption. He has always blamed the west for the loss of billions of aid dollars and the rise of corruption in Afghanistan. However, on a daily basis, ordinary Afghans are less concerned about the kinds of bribery that are believed to occur when the US development agencies give out big development contracts. They are more infuriated by the kinds of bribes that they often have to give to get what they are legally entitled to. It is called “harassment bribes.”

Harassment bribes are when a retired Afghan has to pay some cash to the pension officer to receive his retirement check. Or, suppose a young girl who just graduated from college has to get her paperwork done in order to become a teacher. She is asked to pay a hefty bribe. Suppose your national ID card (Tazkira) is held back till you pay some cash to the officer in charge.  These are all illustration of harassment bribes. Harassment bribery is widespread in Afghanistan, and it plays a large role in breeding inefficiency and has a destructive effect on civil society.

While President Karzai constantly points fingers at the West for widespread corruption in Afghanistan, it is his administration’s duty to take responsibility for banishing bribery on the lower level. The West has nothing to do with this. It is a scourge that deserves to be banished. What can the Afghan government do to discourage bribe givers and takers from engaging in such acts?

Although it is impossible for a single person or even a single ministry to cure this malaise, small steps taken together can add up to something substantial. Kaushik Basu –  the Chief Economic Adviser to the Government of India – puts forward a radical idea of how corrupt countries like Afghanistan can take one step towards cutting down the incidence of bribery. He suggests that the act of giving a bribe should be a legitimate activity in order to reduce the incidence of harassment bribery. Yes, he wants bribe giving legalized.

Game theory suggests that under the current laws of Afghanistan Article 255 (2) of Afghanistan’s penal code (See the footnote) (bribe taker and bribe giver are both consider criminals) once a bribe is given, they both become partners in crime. It is in their joint interest to keep this fact hidden from the authorities and to be fugitives from the law, because if caught, both expect to be punished. Under Basu’s proposal, the giver of a harassment bribe should have full immunity from any punitive action by the authorities, while the bribe taker should be punished twice as much. In that case, it is in bribe giver’s interest to report the bribe taker to authorities, because he will go free, and also collect his bribe money back, while the bribe taker will lose the booty and also faces a hefty punishment.

Should bribe givers in cases of government contracts be fully immune too? The simple answer to this questions is NO. In such instances, both bribe giver and bribe taker commit illegal acts. Bribe giver is paying bribe taker to have got something that he does not deserve to get. For example, a rich real-estate developer bribes the Kabul Municipality to build an apartment in a location designated for a community park or a mosque.

All in all, the Afghan government needs to deal with rampant corruption in Afghanistan. Let’s not blame the West and start taking actions against bribe on the lower level. Small steps such as changing the law to protect the bribe giver from any sorts of punishment would help reduce harassment bribery in the country. In that case, the bribe givers will continue to cooperate with the law. The chances are much higher for the bribe takers to get caught. Since the bribe takers know this, they will be much less inclined to take the bribe in the first place.  Therefore, this establishes that there will be a drop in the incidence of bribery.

Footnote: Afghanistan’s Penal Code Article 255 states:

(1) The bribe-taker shall be sentenced to an imprison of not less than two years and not more than ten years and cash fine of equivalent of what he has requested as bribe or has been given to him or he has been promised to receive.

(2) The briber and the intermediary in bribery shall be sentenced to the same punishment mentioned in the above paragraph. 

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