"The ministers get funds and pay high salaries to themselves and their deputies, but poor people cannot even afford dry bread"
By Noori Zabihullah
LONDON, Oct 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As world powers convene on Tuesday to raise billions of dollars for Afghanistan, few ordinary Afghans expect the benefits of donor money to trickle down to them, citing widespread corruption and insecurity.
Fifteen years after a U.S. invasion toppled the Taliban government, Afghanistan remains one of the world's most dangerous countries with some 1.2 million Afghans uprooted at home and 3 million living as refugees in Iran and Pakistan or seeking asylum in Europe.
Officials at an EU-led donor conference in Brussels will seek total pledges of $3 billion a year for the 2017-2020 period for Afghanistan, which is still reliant on international aid despite raising more of its own revenues.
On Sunday, Afghan Finance Minister Eklil Ahmad Hakimi told parliament the government expects to receive pledges of at least $3.5 billion a year from the two-day conference.
Many ordinary Afghans struggling to survive and fearful of a resurgent Taliban in the country of about 30 million people, do not expect the funds to make a difference to their lives.
"When it comes to money the leaders put all five fingers in their mouth," said Halima, referring to corruption.
The 65-year-old widow, who goes by one name, lost three sons in the conflict.
"I am ill and I have nothing. I have not received one Afghani from this government," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from the northern Balkh province.
Retired military officer Abdul Saleem Nurzai, who lives in Mazar-e-Sharif, said government services in the northern city were virtually nonexistent with running water only available for 20 minutes a day and students forced to attend classes in tents.
"We live in the centre of the city, but the main roads have not been asphalted for the past 15 years. But the side roads leading to politicians' houses are asphalted," Nurzai said.
"The ministers get funds and pay high salaries to themselves and their deputies, but poor people cannot even afford dry bread," he said by telephone.
Transparency International ranked Afghanistan 166th out of 168 nations in its annual corruption index this year - behind North Korea and Somalia.
Last month, the U.S. government's top watchdog on Afghanistan criticised Washington for pouring billions of dollars into Afghanistan with so little oversight that it fuelled corruption and undermined the U.S. mission.
President Ashraf Ghani has vowed to tackle corruption from the top. Last November, his government cancelled a multimillion dollar property contract with the former head of the failed Kabul Bank, who was jailed for embezzlement in 2014.
But for Afghans like Nik Mohammad Nasir, a shopkeeper from Samangan province, such efforts have done little to stop bribery affecting every aspect of their lives.
"The public health sector is the worst. If you go to the public hospital with a patient, they don't admit your patient, if you don't bribe them," Nasir said.
"The government gets billions, but instead of providing and improving public services it has reduced medical services in rural areas saying that they don't have enough funds."
Another concern for many Afghans is insecurity.
Underlining Afghanistan's precarious situation, Taliban fighters pushed into the centre of the northern city of Kunduz on Monday, a year after it briefly fell to the militants.
Even with billions of dollars spent by the United States and NATO for Afghan security forces, some 30 percent of the Afghan population lives in territory that the government does not fully control, according to Western officials.
Insecurity and a high rate of unemployment has prompted many young people to leave Afghanistan for better prospects elsewhere.
A recent survey by U.S.-based Democracy International showed that 82 percent of youths and 72 percent of students in Afghanistan said joblessness and poverty were their major concern.
"There's no job, no security, and no hope for future," Halima said.
(Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)
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