Afghan candidate calls for expulsion of 'corrupt' NGOs

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In the final week before Afghanistan's first free parliamentary elections, a former minister has emerged as a leading candidate on a call for hundreds of Western NGOs to be expelled from the country. Bashar Dost is accusing the majority of NGOs in Afghanistan of being poorly disguised profit-making enterprises that are creaming off money intended for reconstruction. He has also accused the United Nations of wide-ranging corruption.

It is a campaign that has made Mr Dost one of the best known among thousands of candidates, and sent his popularity surging ahead of Sunday's elections. A former planning minister hand-picked by President Hamid Karzai, Mr Dost resigned when his efforts to rein in the NGOs were overruled.

Sunday's elections will be a defining moment in Afghanistan's modern history. Four years after the overthrow of the Taliban, the country is holding its first ever free parliamentary elections, a major step on the road to stability. They follow last year's presidential elections, won by Mr Karzai in a landslide. But the polls are also coming after what has been by far the most violent year since the fall of the Taliban.

Mr Dost says the gleaming new buildings all over Kabul also hide another reality: that Afghanistan's economy is crippled by corruption and has become dominated by NGOs that soak up much of the foreign funding available and pay no taxes.

The country's economy is dominated by Western and local NGOs involved in reconstructing a country shattered by more than two decades of war.

"We have NGO-ism in Afghanistan," says Mr Dost. "It's the new system. Before we had Communism, now it's NGO-ism."

Kabul's huge population of foreign NGO workers has been scandalised by Mr Dost's claims. But they appear to have struck a nerve in Afghan society ­ the more striking since Mr Dost is standing in Kabul province, where there has been more reconstruction than anywhere else.

His accusations will raise questions in Western capitals. A former law professor in France, Mr Dost is one of the generation of Western-educated Afghans who grew up in exile in the West during the Soviet occupation, and the years of Taliban rule, and returned to try to help reconstruct their country in the wake of the 2001 war.

"These NGOs are using the money you pay in taxes in Western countries, which your government has donated for reconstruction in Afghanistan," he said.

He was talking on the sidelines of a walkabout in Karabagh, a dusty market town an hour's drive north of Kabul. When he arrived, security men crowded around. Mr Dost's car was followed by an unmarked civilian car that refused to stop when challenged.

But Mr Dost made a point of breaking away from the guards and going up to shake locals' hands. Not all the candidates have been as brave. Thousands of candidates are standing for the 249 seats in parliament; 21 of them were debarred by the election commission for links to warlords. Many have confined their campaigning to well-organised rallies in major cities.

"Everywhere in Afghanistan is dangerous," says Mr Dost. "You have to accept some risk. If you just stay in your office, that's no way to see the Afghan people's problems, to see what they need."

Mr Dost's campaign has centred on his call for 1,935 registered NGOs to be expelled from Afghanistan.

About 20 per cent of all the funding to NGOs is spent on "commissions" which are bribes to government officials to win contracts, Mr Dost alleges. He claims UN officials are taking bribes, too. "There is a lot of corruption in the UN," he said. "The UN is even more corrupt than the Afghan government."

But Mr Dost is quick to point out that his report found 420 of the NGOs in Afghanistan did excellent work, and he wants them to stay in Afghanistan and continue their work. He refuses to name which NGOs he wants expelled.

He says he resigned after Mr Karzai blocked his attempt to expel the NGOs. "He told me, 'You're right, but it's not the right time'," Mr Dost said. But if he is elected, he will have to find allies in parliament if he is to do anything to force action against the NGOs.