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Rookie Afghan politician accuses aid agencies, government of corruption

Brian Hutchinson, Vancouver Sun, 9 Dec 06

Article Link

 

Rookie Afghan parliamentarians from different ethnic

and religious factions waggle fingers at each other and shout across

the curved pavilion. Cellphones ring constantly inside the dingy,

249-seat chamber, one half of the bicameral National Assembly that

convened late last year, for the first time in a generation.

 

Today's proceedings will not include the flinging of objects and

the raising of fists, although such incidents have happened in the

new Afghan parliament.

 

At issue this week is a proposed $119 million US loan to

Afghanistan's state bank, from the International Monetary Fund.

 

One might think a large, low-interest financial package would

receive fast approval; after all, this country seems to need all the

help it can get.

 

However, there is sharp dissent, and most of it comes from a seat

in the chamber's second row where one of Afghanistan's most

outspoken politicians -- Ramazan Bashardost -- rails against the

proposed IMF loan.

 

Recently returned from a 25-year exile in France, where he worked,

studied, and received a doctorate in political science, the

44-year-old bachelor is best known for denouncing international

relief and funding agencies that operate in Afghanistan, including

those from the UN and World Bank.

 

For more than a year, Bashardost has alleged corrupt practices by

foreign agencies.

 

He describes them as self-serving as the local bureaucracies and

government departments they are supposed to help.

 

Relief agencies "are more dangerous than warlords," Bashardost has

said. Some of them, he claims, operate like "mafia," diverting funds

meant for reconstruction.

 

He said they should be thrown out of Afghanistan.

 

The allegations are serious, but Bashardost -- who a year ago was

the country's planning minister in President Harmid Karzai's cabinet

-- has offered little hard evidence to support them. And his

preoccupation with the issue cost him that job, which he was given

in 2004, just a year after returning from France.

 

While in cabinet, Bashardost raised the ire of Afghanistan's

international community, first by asking precisely where billions of

aid dollars were being spent in the country, and then suggesting

some were being used more to benefit foreign workers than Afghans.

 

He launched an official investigation into the matter, but it was

never completed.

 

Last year, Bashardost and his ministry were marginalized, and it

was reported Karzai planned to shuffle him from cabinet.

 

But Bashardost resigned his post as a "protest against corruption."

 

His defiance endeared him to Afghans who also wondered why promised

improvements to infrastructure and schools seemed slow to

materialize, despite a large foreign-aid presence for the past

several years.

 

Seizing an opportunity, Bashardost declared himself a House of

Representative candidate in last autumn's election, and sailed to

victory. He claims to be the only independent, non-aligned member of

the entire National Assembly; everyone else, he said, owes his or

her seat to tribal, religious, or political affiliations.

 

"I serve the people, and the others do not," declares Bashardost,

during a break in this week's IMF loan debate. "That means that I

can speak my mind when others cannot. I am alone."

 

But he makes himself remarkably accessible. While some elected

Afghans seldom make time to meet with ordinary citizens, much less

hear their complaints, Bashardost maintains an open-tent policy.

 

Literally.

 

Three days a week, he can be found at Kabul's only outdoor

constituency office, a makeshift tent set up in the middle of Park E

Shahre Naw, a popular downtown greenspace in Kabul.

 

Bashardost welcomes visitors to sit with him under a haphazard

construction of blue plastic tarpaulins. On Sunday, he received a

small delegation of elders, sombre men who had come to air

grievances. A wood stove sat in the centre, unlit despite the late

autumn chill.

 

Outside, another crowd was gathered. Some men stood reading

newspaper articles Bashardost pasted to a half-dozen large

signboards. Others peered at photographs: Bashardost shaking hands

with delegations or Bashardost speaking at rallies.

 

A sentry hut is nearby with two security guards to keep an eye on

things.

 

Rarely is there any trouble, Bashardost said.

 

"I think it's great that he comes here and speaks with us," grinned

Arman Shahrarian, a 21-year-old high school student. "I wish all

politicians had a tent like this, so we could discuss issues with

them." Bashardost has a certain popularity with the working classes,

but he's not a "populist," the former exile insists.

 

That's a label worn by politicians who "will do anything for

power," he adds.

 

He's more comfortable with the word reformist, and Bashardost wants

change.

 

All of Karzai's cabinet ministers must leave office, he said.

 

"They are part of the mafia systems running the country."

 

The National Assembly is dysfunctional, he adds.

 

"Some representatives cannot read or write. A majority are

warlords. Some are involved in the drug trade. We only sit three

days a week, for three hours. It's too much for the salaries we

receive."

 

He notes ordinary members of Parliament receive about $1,350 per

month, or 28 times what a clerk or professor might earn.

 

But he saves his sharpest attacks for those who spend aid money on

themselves. Instead of helping rebuild Afghanistan, they are pushing

it backwards, he said.

 

"You people in Canada, you work hard and pay many taxes. A lot of

your money is coming here. Unfortunately it is used by a minority of

people for their own interests, to buy $60,000 cars ...

 

"In five years, the IMF and the World Bank and the UN agencies have

directed the Afghan state. The result has been negative."

 

Few of the nation's most powerful would admit paying any attention

to Bashardost.

 

Still, he's not as alone as he claims.

 

Bashardost won a measure of support in the Wolesi Jirga -- the

lower house of Afghanistan's National Assembly -- this week when the

proposed IMF loan he opposed was not approved. Instead,

representatives decided to ask Afghanistan's Ministry of Finance for

more information about how the large sum would be directed, and to

whom, and for what.


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