Gateway House interviews Sarah Chayes, Foreign Press Club and Sigma Delta Chi award-winning former reporter at National Public Radio, on the anti-corruption and democracy movements around the world as a response to governments turning mafia syndicates. Chayes reported from Kandahar from 2001 on, and has lived there since, building civil society institutions, authoring a best-selling book, “The Punishment of Virtue, Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban,”
GH: The Afghanistan project started out in 2001 with great optimism and hope about checkmating Al-Qaeda’s brand of terrorism, as well as rebuilding a nation. Ten years later, has that fructified as planned?
Sarah Chayes: It seems to me that there have been significant concrete gains against the physical manifestation of Al-Qaeda terrorism, not the least of which the localization and killing of Osama Bin Laden. During the decade it took to achieve that goal, a lot was learned about the structure and organization of that association, and its collaborators and imitators; and a lot of progress was made in disrupting and breaking down these networks.
On the other hand, I don’t think nearly as much progress has been made in reaching a deeper understanding of the motivations behind transnational terrorism, or even behind the conflict in Afghanistan. It was as though the heinousness of the acts was all we had to know, not what might drive men to commit them. So some of the very gains mentioned above inadvertently exacerbated local conflicts, not to mention resentment of the United States among a broad swathe of people around the world.
In Afghanistan in particular, the U.S. refused to consider the potential consequences of empowering a collection of repudiated warlords and major criminals in late 2001 as proxies against the Taliban, and then upholding and supporting these men in positions of power in the Afghan government. They exploited Americans’ single-minded concern with terrorism to obtain a virtual blank check from their US partners regarding how they treated their citizens, so long as they appeared to cooperate in fighting (militarily) terrorists. The result was a gradual mafiazation of the Afghan government, with power and profits shared among a few interlocking – but also competing – networks, money moving upwards in the system, in return for permission to extract resources and protection from legal or regulatory repercussions.
I was experiencing this from the grass-roots level for years – and experiencing the rising frustration of the Afghan people at what amounted to the capture of their state by criminal syndicates under the eyes of the international community – but I didn’t begin thinking about the phenomenon in a systematic fashion until about 2009, when I began working on anti-corruption strategies for the command of the international forces, in Kabul. Then I began to understand how structured this corruption had become. Still, I was primarily focusing on the case of Afghanistan. I was completely taken aback when I presented a discussion of this phenomenon, complete with a slide sketching out how the system works, and was greeted by a standing ovation from several hundred international high-ranking military and law enforcement officers at a symposium at the Marshall Center in Garmisch, Germany, in early 2010. Several came to talk to me afterwards and practically chorused: “You just described my country.”
Then I realized we were faced with a global phenomenon.
GH: How is this phenomenon manifesting itself?
Sarah Chayes: The people experience it as a constant requirement to pay money in order to get public officials to perform their duties (or to induce them not to perform them). In Afghanistan – one of the poorest countries on the planet – two separate studies in late 2010 estimated the total amount of money extorted by way of this “petty” corruption to be between $1 and $2.5 billion per year. The payment requirement is usually accompanied by physical or psychological humiliation – a slap in the face, or a swipe at your vehicle with the stock of a rifle to break the windshield if you fail to comply – and utter impunity for the offending official. The result is an acute sense of injustice on the part of ordinary citizens, who see not just themselves hurt and disadvantaged, but also assets that they consider part of their national patrimony, such as mineral wealth, land, or development resources, going straight into the pockets of a privileged few, while they and their neighbors are suffering on the margins of survival. Particularly galling is the fact that such activities go on in societies that claim to be governed by constitutions, codes of laws developed by representative institutions, and judicial bodies to enforce those laws. This type of mafia government makes a mockery of such institutions and of modern notions of rule-based government and equal justice under the law.
I always knew such behavior was not part of the “culture” of South Asia, as so many Westerners argued to me. But what I didn’t fully understand until 2009 was the degree to which this activity is structured and systematized, not just the ad hoc salary-padding of a few bad apples on the police force, for example. Rather, a portion of the bribes extorted on the streets is required in kickbacks by superiors, as the price for the job, or the position on a lucrative street corner, or a juicy judgeship. These are structured, vertically-integrated networks, whose objective is the extraction of resources. They’re really only masquerading as governments.
GH: How is the public from both developed and developing countries, responding to it? The Anna Hazare movement? The Arab Spring – is it a related response or an indirect outcome of 9/11? How will these new phenomena change our world – which new era will we enter?
Sarah Chayes: Initially, when I gave that talk at the Marshall Center, and I examined the countries from which my most enthusiastic listeners came from – Nigeria, some of the ‘Stans, etc. – I noticed a clear correlation between mafia government and violent religious extremism. And I realized the sense in such a match: If the reason-based rules that have been evolving since the Enlightenment no longer provide people with a reasonable hope of redress of legitimate grievances, then it should be no surprise that they turn back to (their interpretation of) God. And an angry god at that, who in their view, encourages the expression of violent outrage. It was a pretty distressing picture.
But then the Arab Spring erupted – presaged, let’s not forget, by Kyrgyzstan. From Morocco to Syria and beyond, rigorously nonviolent popular uprisings made public corruption the center of their demands. I saw Moroccan demonstrators carry brooms to demonstrations. Tunisian taxi drivers would spontaneously point out public lands that had been expropriated by the Ben Ali clan for their private use. Egyptians have obtained the trial of top officials on corruption as well as murder charges, while the military leadership continues to seek to evade the relatively respected civilian judicial institution.
And then Anna Hazare came to the fore in India, bringing tens of thousands of people to the streets to demand a proper, truly independent anti-corruption authority, with the ability to hold government officials acco
untable for their use of public assets for private gain. (Ironically, a structure very similar to the joint provincial ombudsman committees I tried to get international officials to establish in Afghanistan. Many of them derided the idea as “alien to local culture.”)
Here was an entirely different – and far more constructive – response to mafia government than violent extremism. What is fascinating about these movements has been their local specificity. While the grievances have been almost identical across a dozen nations, local solutions proposed by activists are different. In some countries, the public has been driven by lack of response from the government to demand regime change. In others, such as Morocco and perhaps Jordan, the public is asking for quite sophisticated transformations of their constitutional orders. When I asked a teen-aged girl why she was demonstrating in Rabat, Morocco, on March 20, she said: “I think the prime minister should be directly elected by the people, and it should be he, not the king, who appoints the cabinet.” That’s not regime change, that’s constitutional reform. In India, the demand is different yet: it is the reinforcement of existing mechanisms of checks and balances.
Where this leads really depends on how successful all these vibrant, inspired, courageous, untried populations are in recapturing the public space from over-entitled, out-of-touch elites, how deft in building institutions of accountable and truly representative government, and how vigilant in monitoring application of principles and in protecting their new political institutions from diverse forms of autocracy that will endeavor to move back in.
Perhaps the biggest surprise for me has been the lack of contagion in the West. Surely the 2008 economic crash was caused in part by some of these same types of corrupt behavior, with business elites slipping the reins of reasonable regulation, anemic accountability, and short-term profit even at the expense of the world economy continuing to reap massive rewards. While some of those suffering the brunt of corrective measures for these crises, such as young people in Spain, have launched their own movements, I find western publics to be surprisingly apathetic as mafia government creeps into their own systems.
GH: Can developed-world democracy model be a viable alternative?
Sarah Chayes: Of course! All the ‘developed-world democracy model’ really adds up to is the application of a set of principles, which I truly take to be universally valued: citizens get some real say in their collective destiny, the rules that govern society are applicable to all, opportunities are distributed with rough equality, mechanisms exist for the redress of legitimate grievances, institutions are structured so as to provide independent checks and balances on power, and mechanisms exist for the alteration and improvement of the system according to these principles.
What worries me the most is money. Money’s ability to concentrate power is the factor that has most vitiated the developed-world democracy model as far as I can tell. So the future of all of the current experiments in remaking democracy will depend on the people’s ability to constrain the power of money.
Sarah Chayes is Foreign Press Club and Sigma Delta Chi award-winning former reporter at National Public Radio.
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