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Ministers Play the Blame Game

Given the chance to list their accomplishments during the past year, most point the finger of blame at others as explanation for the lack of progress.
By Mohammad Jawad
It seemed like a good idea at the time. A little more than a year after being elected president, Hamed Karzai decided it was time for the ministers in his government to go before the public and account for their activities during their term in office.

“This is not just a ceremonial event or propaganda,” promised Jawed Ludin, the presidential chief of staff. “This is a moment of truth, so that the government understands that it is serving the nation and must answer to the nation. The people must realise that they have the right to call the government to account.”

Over the course of a week in late November, each of the government’s 34 ministers was given 20 minutes on national television to summarise successes and failures. These accounts were also aired on radio and published in the press.

These appearances were then followed up by news conferences, where reporters could question the ministers.

That, at least, was the theory.

In fact, Karzai’s “Accountability Week” failed to shed much light on government operations. Many of the 250 reporters who participated in the news conferences came away complaining that the ministers wasted much of the time allotted for the question-and-answer sessions by merely repeating what they had said during their previous television appearances.

Others grumbled that the ministers largely avoided dealing with difficult issues, turning the seven-day event into an exercise in public relations.

For example, there were few answers to questions concerning the slow pace reconstruction in the country. With a small army of aid workers and over four billion US dollars invested in numerous projects, many Afghans had expected to see more accomplished since the fall of the Taleban in 2001.

“At this rate, it will take 400 years to reconstruct Afghanistan,” muttered one Kabul resident as his car clattered over the unpaved road leading east from the airport.

But all Economics Minister Mir Mohammad Amin Farhang could do when questioned on the topic was complain that his ministry is hampered by the lack of accountability among the international assistance community which fuels the bulk of Afghanistan’s economic growth. Some estimates say international aid accounts for 90 per cent of Afghanistan’s official economy.

“When we ask the [non-governmental organisations] to account for their performance and activities, they ignore us, because the international organisations working in the country consider themselves to be above the government. If we put pressure on them they threaten to shut down operations,” he said.

Officials were equally evasive when faced with questions regarding public corruption. A recent report by Transparency International, the international corruption watchdog organisation, ranked Afghanistan among the 50 most corrupt nations in the world. Karzai himself has referred to corruption as one of his country’s most severe problems.

But Prosecutor General Mahmood Daqiq had little to say when faced with a barrage of questions about transport minister Inayatullah Qasimi, who has been accused of embezzlement but has not yet been brought to trial. Qasimi is still in office while the investigation is pending.

“We have sent 11 official letters to the transport minister, but he does not answer them,” said Daqiq “We are neither the police nor the army. When we want to arrest someone, we do it through the police, and we investigate,” he added. “We have written many times to the government, and explained that we need to start an investigation, but we have not received an answer.

“One day when I went to meet President Hamed Karzai, he asked me, ‘Why are you after the transportation minister?’ I said he’s accused of embezzlement, but added that if the president does not want this, he should give us an order so we can postpone the trial.”

Fazel Rahman Oria, a political analyst and editor of the bi-monthly magazine Payam, was dismissive of the whole exercise. “This is not accountability. It is cheating the Afghan people and the international community,” he said. “If this is the way ministers are called to account, the embezzlers will only get braver. They will steal with both hands in future.”

“We need a real mechanism for accountability,” said political analyst Mohammad Qasim Akhgar. “The people of Afghanistan must be able to question the ministers, and put real pressure on them if they refuse to answer questions.”

Akhgar added, “With this kind of accountability, you could bring Mullah Omar in and he could give you an account, too.”

Saifuddin Saihoon, a lecturer in economics at Kabul University, said if Accountability Week was an attempt to showcase the cabinet’s competence, it failed.

“The journalists knew more than some of the ministers,” he said.

The public also seemed less than impressed by what they saw as the president’s public relations event.

“This was really a kind of amusement for the ministers,” said Nafiza, 40, an employee at the ministry of information and culture. “Who did they render their accounts to? Really, just to each other.”

“This was just a sort of show,” said Ahmad Farid, 43, a resident of Kabul. “What has the government done? Kabul doesn’t have electricity, unemployment is very high, and so are prices.”

Mohammad Jawad Sharifzada is an IWPR reporter in Kabul.

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