When producer Peter Breslow and I were part of the NPR team that covered the war in Afghanistan in the winter of 2001 and 2002, we spent a lot of time shivering, and may have learned a little about corruption there.
Winters in Kabul are bleak and numbing. The electricity supply in the home that NPR rented was sporadic, unpredictable and hazardous. If we got an hour of power, we'd leap to plug in our recording equipment and computers. If the power was still on when they were charged, we could risk hooking up some small heaters.
You couldn't do both; the power was too weak. We bought a couple of generators, but gas to run them was almost as hard to come by as electricity, and you couldn't turn them on at night, when the sound would signal, "Cold, crazy Americans sleep here." To quote an old punchline, we slept and froze in the dark.
One night, the man in charge of electricity for our neighborhood came calling. It was a business call. He suggested that he might be able to give us full electricity for a small — well, maybe not so small — fee.
We counted out the cash immediately, telling ourselves — and eventually NPR's accountants — how vital it was to keep our equipment running.
This palpably perfidious man managed to make us feel sorry for him. He said the Taliban had not paid him for several months, and he had a large family. This was perhaps a convenient truth. It helped us see the bribe we gave him as some kind of public service.
Corruption is wrong — not only illegal and immoral, but destructive. And yet, I've been to enough places, from Chicago to Calcutta to Kabul, where corruption has been called endemic to know that if people feel warm and safe, if they're working and well-fed, they will accept and even enjoy a certain amount of corruption — if they think their government makes a place run well. If it doesn't, they can begin to see corruption as their one best chance to look out for themselves. A government that's honest but incompetent is useless to people if they can't feel safe, or see a future for their children.
A lot of the reports about corruption among local officials in Afghanistan reek of sheer greed and brutality. But I wonder how many Afghans, like our Kabul electric man, aren't just so anxious about the future and whether the world will stay or the Taliban will come roaring back, that they decide just to get what they can while they can.
Our electric man told us, "Don't let other people in the street see that you have electricity. They'll want it, too."
I suppose Peter and I and our Afghan staff should have said, "That's outrageous. Give electricity to everyone on our street, or we'll cancel our arrangement."
Instead we told him, "You got a deal."