Douglas Alexander: Tackling corruption is critical to Afghanistan's future

A loss of faith in public officials has driven people into insurgents' arms

Today's Afghanistan Conference in London provides the international community and the government of Afghanistan with an opportunity to focus on the priorities for securing the country and preventing it from again becoming a safe haven for international terrorists.

Three months after the inauguration of President Karzai for a second term, this conference will provide a test for his administration's commitment to tackling the corruption that undermines that trust. In his inauguration speech, President Karzai declared a commitment to "bring to justice those involved in spreading corruption and abuse of public property." He must now turn those words into deeds.

Last week's survey from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime showed the true extent to which corruption affects Afghans. Six out of 10 people said that corruption was the biggest problem they face. The problem of corruption is not simply one of perception. In a country where the average annual wage is just over $300 per year, the average household pays as much as $160 in bribes a year. Altogether, the UN survey suggests that Afghans paid out $2.5 billion in bribes over the past 12 months – equivalent to almost a quarter of Afghanistan's GDP.

The loss of faith in public officials is forcing ordinary Afghans – who feel they have no redress – to look elsewhere for their security and welfare, driving them into the arms of insurgents. Corruption is also restricting growth in the Afghan economy, damaging the confidence of would-be investors. That is why the international community is looking to President Karzai's Government to show leadership and renewed determination to tackle this problem.

President Karzai has already committed to establish an independent anti-corruption commission with powers of investigation and links to prosecutors. That commission and all of the bodies responsible for tackling corruption – from police teams to judicial tribunals – should now be provided with a legal guarantee for their long-term independence from the government, to ensure freedom from undue interference.

To verify progress on tackling corruption, the international community and the Government of Afghanistan is expected to agree to establish a panel of international, independent representatives to monitor the Government's anti-corruption efforts. Such a panel would report to the Afghan government as a critical friend, to the Parliament and the Afghan people as an aide to calling their government to account, and to the international community to inform investment decisions.

In return for clear commitments from the Government of Afghanistan to tackle corruption, the international community should work together to support the establishment of an effective, enduring Afghan state. That means donors keeping their promises on investment, as the UK has done. While we have delivered on all of the aid pledges we have made over the past three years, close to a quarter of all international commitments previously given have not been met.

Donors should also work more through the Afghan government, rather than around it. While corruption creates a natural desire among donors to avoid delivering through the Government, evidence from around the world shows that doing so is more expensive and less effective. And we must remember that our aim is to support the people of Afghanistan to build a state that can provide basic services to its people – not to provide those services ourselves.

Even amidst real concerns about corruption, aid can be channelled through the Government of Afghanistan. Most of the UK's aid to Afghanistan goes through the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund, which is managed by the World Bank and monitored by independent auditors.

Rather than provide aid money up front, that fund reimburses the Afghan Government when it shows legitimate spend on reconstruction projects. The fund has delivered real benefits for the Afghan people, including paying teachers' salaries, and helping to get many more children into school. In 2001, just one million children across Afghan-istan had access to education – all of them boys. Today, more than six million children, a third of them girls, are in school.

With clear and credible action on corruption, the Government of Afghanistan could safeguard the international investment it currently receives and begin a new phase of partnership with the international community. It can show the people of Afghanistan that it is the government – not the Taliban-led insurgency – that is committed to delivering a more prosperous, more secure and more just nation.

Douglas Alexander is the Secretary of State for International Development