The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says that Afghans paid out $2.5 billion in bribes over a 12-month period.
In a report issued today, titled "Corruption in Afghanistan," UNODC says the figure is equivalent to almost one-quarter of Afghanistan's gross domestic product (GDP), and is similar in size to the estimated $2.8 billion in revenues from the opium trade in 2009.
One Kabul resident tells RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan that graft is part of everyday life.
“I think there is no one in Afghanistan who has not experienced the bad phenomenon of corruption. Everybody has faced corruption in government institutions, in court, and in the prosecutor's office," he says. "You can see corruption everywhere. About 20 minutes ago, in front of my eyes, police stopped a loaded truck and then let it go after the driver gave him 50 Afghanis. This is corruption, the bribe. People face it and see it everyday, including me."
The UN survey tells a similar story.
Based on interviews with 7,600 people in 12 provincial capitals and more than 1,600 villages around Afghanistan between autumn 2008 and autumn 2009, the survey shows that Afghans consider rampant corruption as their biggest problem.
Fifty-nine percent of the respondents felt that "public dishonesty is a bigger concern than insecurity (54 percent) or unemployment (52 percent)."
One Afghan out of two had to pay at least one kickback to a public official during the survey period.
More than half of the time, the request for illicit payment was an explicit demand by the service provider.
The report says citizens were asked for bribes when they needed a document or a license, to have their rights protected in courts, or to receive medical treatment.
In most instances, the bribes were paid in cash.
The average bribe was $160, in a country where GDP per capita is $425 per year.
A spokesperson for UNODC in Vienna, Walter Kemp, tells RFE/RL that corruption is a major impediment to improving security, development, and governance in Afghanistan.
"Corruption is not only a crime in itself, it's a lubricant for other forms of organized crime, like drug trafficking," Kemp says. "But not only that, it is a major impediment to development.
"If money which is designed to help the country disappears in a big, black hole, then that certainly hinders the ability for the country to rebuild itself. Also, it's a hindrance to security and, of course, the implementation of the rule of law."
UNODC found that the biggest culprits were police and local officials, followed by judges, prosecutors, and members of the government.
The international community does not escape criticism. The report says more than half of Afghans believe that international organizations and nongovernmental organizations "are corrupt and are in the country just to get rich."
It says this perception risks undermining aid effectiveness and discrediting those trying to help the country.
Set Clear Benchmarks
Meanwhile, lack of confidence in the ability of public institutions to deliver public goods is pushing Afghans to look for alternative providers of security and welfare, including antigovernment elements.
For all these reasons, UNODC urges the new Afghan government to make fighting corruption its highest priority.
Kemp says an international conference on Afghanistan in London later this month should set clear benchmarks for the Afghan government on corruption.
"We're calling for the international community to use the UN convention against corruption as the benchmark for measuring progress in Afghanistan," Kemp says. "And there's plenty of very concrete measures in there about how to prevent corruption, about how to criminalize corruption, how to recover stolen assets, and so on. So we're saying: There's no need to start from scratch."
The UNODC is also calling on President Hamid Karzai to turn the country's anticorruption agency, the High Office of Oversight and Anticorruption, into an independent, fearless and well-funded authority.
Since Karzai began a new term in November after an election marred by massive fraud, his Western allies have put him under mounting pressure to crack down on corruption.