I thought of my experiences there as I read about the Tokyo Conference on Afghanistan held earlier this month, where donors pledged$16 billion to aid Afghanistan. At the Tokyo Conference, Afghan president Hamid Karzai pledged to “fight corruption with strong resolve.” Since Karzai’s control over Afghanistan is limited -- hence the quip that he is more accurately described as mayor of Kabul than president of Afghanistan -- it’s unclear how much his government can do to curb corruption.
Concerns about corruption are causing many philanthropists to withdraw from Afghanistan, according to Reuters:
Almost 10 percent of NGOs in Afghanistan -- 175 in number -- were ordered shut at the start of the year by the Economy Ministry after they failed to submit annual reports due to inefficiency, corruption and oversight.
As a result, donations to Afghanistan's NGOs have waned, raising concerns about their ability to keep operating when most NATO combat troops leave at the end of 2014.
"We are very concerned, the country is at a critical stage," said Colin Alfred, Asia Education Advisor at Save the Children.
Concerns about corruption aren’t just about the conduct of Afghans. There have been spectacular falls from grace for Americans working in Afghanistan when it is judged that they have become too comfortable with non-Western standards. The mega-nonprofit AED -- with hundreds of employees and programs globally and a multistory headquarters building just off Dupont Circle in Washington -- was shuttered in 2010 after financial misconduct in its programs in Afghanistan and Pakistan was revealed. Greg Mortenson’s account of his role in building schools in Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, described in his bestselling Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time, and the financial management of his nonprofit were revealed to be highly problematic in a 60 Minutes episode last spring and in Jon Krakauer’s book Three Cups of Deceit – How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way.
How can American philanthropists and non-profits work with integrity in Afghanistan, where almost any work requires working with leaders and groups whose attitudes and norms of conduct are at least different from, if not repugnant to, Western standards? I don’t know about working in Afghanistan in particular, so I can’t speak to this question in detail. But I’m sure that you can’t do good work in Afghanistan and insist on purity in your dealings. So how can those philanthropists and non-profit leaders working in Afghanistan do their work and keep to standards of conduct they can live with?
Ruth Grant, professor of political philosophy at Duke University, wrote about how to navigate such situations in her study Hypocrisy and Integrity. According to Grant, there isn’t a continuum between integrity and corruption. Instead, there are four, distinct possible approaches: righteous hypocrisy, which embraces corruption on the grounds that since everyone else is corrupt only fools would behave uprightly; complacent hypocrisy, which goes along with corrupt practices and thereby tacitly condone corruption; moralism, which refuses to compromise its principles even if this means refusing to help others in dire need; and statesmanship, which balances the importance of holding to principled conduct with the compromises necessary to do good. The statesman, whose approach Grant recommends, is like Machiavelli in that he recognizes that
the nature of political relations, along with the morally retrograde character of humanity, dictate hypocritical behavior. They also justify it. The alternatives to hypocrisy are force, on the one hand, and honesty on the other. Force can hardly be defended as a morally superior alternative. . . . Honesty would appear to be the ethical option . . . [but given] the nature of political relations, the attempt to remain honest and to adhere strictly to stated moral principles is bound to end in political failure.
Afghanistan won’t be best served by the kind of righteous or careless hypocrites who explicitly or tacitly condone corruption -- nor by moralists who refuse to do anything there because they won’t compromise their standards. Instead, what is required is statesman-like philanthropists who go to Afghanistan with Machiavelli in their back pockets.