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Moonlighting in Kabul

Dire pay forces civil servants to take second jobs, making government less effective.
By Farida Nekzad

Efforts to get Afghanistan's state institutions back on their feet are being hampered by absenteeism, as civil servants skip work to moonlight in better-paid jobs.

The pay offered in government posts is rarely enough to feed a family, so many state employees are forced to turn their hands to a variety of second jobs, sometimes in the commercial sector and often in foreign-funded non-government organisations, NGOs.

"I go in to my office every other day and sign the register. I also go there if I am needed urgently," said a civil servant who asked not to be named. "The director is a relative of mine. There are some other people there who also work in two different places at the same time."

A large proportion of the money for government salaries comes from the international trust fund for Afghanistan as part of the effort to strengthen the institutions of state - yet public servants are often they are lured away by NGOs which are also funded by foreign donors. Official donor policy is for the non-governmental sector's work to be coordinated so that it supports the work carried out by central institutions.

But the ministries are suffering because of the proliferation of NGO jobs - at a time when observers agree that it is crucial to make the government more effective.

A woman who combines work for a state agency with editing a publication backed by foreign funders says that there is a desperate need to supplement meagre incomes. "There's a big difference between the wages paid by the government and the NGOs, and the government does not even pay regularly," she told IWPR.

"It is not just me - other people also head for the NGOs for higher pay. And this could be a big barrier to the development of Afghanistan, and of its government agencies."

Officials at the ministry of finance, which controls salary levels across the public sector, say that they recognise the problem. But because of budgetary constraints, they cannot raise wages - even though pay has remained unchanged for years.

"Before the fighting [which began in 1979] there were coupons [for foodstuffs] and other privileges which don't exist now, so current salaries are inadequate," said Narges Naihan, treasury director at the finance ministry.

"The government can't afford to give its employees salaries as high as the ones that foreign organisations pay."

She added that the result is that absenteeism obstructs the ministries' work.

Naihan says that while it is illegal for government employees to take a second job, the answer is not to pursue such individuals but to strive for public-sector reform and - in the long run - pay rises.

It is not just ministry staff who are affected. Police officer Ghulam is now running a video and music shop on the side. "The government salary doesn't meet my living requirements so I have to do the two jobs," he told IWPR.

Despite having over 15 years experience as a police officer, he earns only 2,100 afghanis a month - about 44 US dollars - and even that sum is paid erratically. "We get our salary one month, then we don't get it for another three," he said.

Although there is not much he can do about it, Ghulam recognises that the behaviour of people like him hampers the effectiveness of government departments.

Out at Kabul University, the effect of the two-jobs phenomenon is easy to see from the shortage of teaching staff on campus. A good education and language skills are saleable commodities, and many lecturers - who would otherwise net less than 100 dollars a month - have bagged well-paid jobs with international organisations. But they keep their teaching posts, simply changing lecture times or cancelling at short notice to fit round their outside jobs.

"As you can see there is no teacher at the moment," said a student in the journalism faculty, when IWPR visited. "Most teachers work for foreign organisations, so they give us lecture notes when they are absent. We don't know whether we're learning anything - but we are concerned for our future."

"I can do both jobs at once," said a lecturer in the medical faculty who works as an administrative assistant at an international NGO. Some of his colleagues are more worried by the need to juggle roles so that the students do not suffer unduly. "When the workload increases in the [outside] office, sometimes I do not go to the faculty to teach," said another lecturer. "But the next day I will make up for the class I have missed."

This man is frustrated that he has been forced to take a second job - for him teaching is a "sacred duty". "The money we get is not enough to buy cigarettes, so how are we supposed to meet the needs of our families?" he said.

Public-sector employees may earn only a pittance, but they are reluctant to abandon their official jobs entirely. Some, like the lecturer interviewed by IWPR, are deeply committed to their profession. Others like the job security and the guaranteed pension, whereas jobs with foreign agencies come and go, and no one knows how long the NGOs will be staying in Afghanistan.

Farida Nekzad is a staff reporter for IWPR in Kabul. Danish Karokhel is a trainer/editor in Kabul.

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