Afghanistan’s Vicious Patronage Network

Just about any American who’s spent much time in Afghanistan will tell you that the biggest challenge we faced there wasn’t the insurgency, but the culture, specifically the “old boy” patronage networks and expectations of bribery that have wasted untold millions of American taxpayers’ money. This will take a very long time to change. And as we leave Afghanistan—the turnover of security responsibilities to the Afghan National Army and Police passed almost unheralded last week—we leave behind a generation of young Afghans who have the education to serve their country, but not the opportunities they deserve. I’m referring to the many recent college graduates who are unemployed or under-employed.

When I was visiting Afghanistan often, I used to get a lot of e-mails like the ones below:

June 24 2013

Dear Ann Marlowe

Hi, I hope you are fine and be successful in your business.

My name is Shahbaz … We met about five years ago in our village, I graduated from Kabul University with bachelor degree in finance and banking now I want to start my personal business and I need your advices because you are a businesswoman. There are many investment opportunities in Afghanistan therefore I want to invest in my country, so if you are coming to Afghanistan please inform me to discuss about this.

Yours Sincerely

Dear Mr Shahbaz,

I’m so happy you finished your education and have high hopes for your future. My work is now concerning Libya so I have not been to Afghanistan since May 2011. If I know anyone who can help you I will put you in touch. Are you living in Kabul now?

best regards,


Dear Ann Marlowe,

Yes, I’m living in Kabul. You know Afghanistan is in the first position in corruption in the world and this is a big shame for us! There is nepotism and everyone has to find someone or give money for doing anything in government administrations, in such conditions finding a job is a real challenge. I searched a lot to find a job, but I didn’t find yet, because I have no one of my near friend or member of my family in government. You lived in Afghanistan and you might know someone helpful for me, so please help me in finding a job with USAID, ISAF or any other organization, job as an Interpreter or related to my field (Finance).

Now what will perhaps strike the reader about Shahbaz’s e-mails is that he met me five years ago! He was only in high school at the time, and I was impressed that he commuted by bicycle to a high school ten or fifteen miles away from his dusty village. Shahbaz’s home in southeastern Afghanistan is pretty attractive by rural regional standards, but it’s shockingly impoverished by any others. When I asked the headmen of nearby villages how many literate men lived in their towns of a few thousand, the answer was usually, “a few” or “one or two.” Shahbaz aspired to go to Kabul and I couldn’t blame him. After that single brief meeting, we exchanged perhaps a half dozen e-mails over those five years and I hadn’t heard from him in awhile until Monday.

Why did Shahbaz bother to contact someone he hadn’t seen in five years? Because for poor rural Afghans without access to the patronage network, a foreigner is a trump card. He or she may have access to coveted “NGO” jobs that pay far more than, say, working for the Afghan government. And she won’t shake him down for a bribe.

In fact, I’m taking the liberty of using Shahbaz’s real name in the faint hope that someone reading this blog may indeed know of a job he can apply for.

Shahbaz’s e-mails raise an obvious issue. If he wants to start his own business, why doesn’t he just do it rather than ask me if I know anyone to hire him? Well, loans are very thin on the ground in Afghanistan, even though the banking sector has grown exponentially since 2002. Commercial banks still require the borrower to have on deposit almost the amount of the loan. There are some micro-finance banks but they focus on very small-scale agricultural projects like lending a rural woman money to buy chickens to sell eggs. I doubt that’s what Shahbaz wants to do with his education. Loans for recent graduates without powerful families? Forget about it.

Afghanistan often looks like a vicious circle: we haven’t succeeded in establishing a reasonably stable democracy because of corruption and patronage networks, which are fed by American contracts, which are necessary to set up the institutions for a democracy.

There’s a temptation to say, “build it and they will come”—for example, fund the universities so that young men like Shahbaz can break the cycle of poverty and illiteracy in their families and help to grow the Afghan economy. But we forget about the pull of culture to our peril. 

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