Learning from Disaster: Corruption and Environmental Catastrophe

One year ago, Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda) struck the Philippines, claiming over 6,000 lives. In the aftermath, numerous reports emerged regarding the failure of the Philippine government to properly manage relief efforts and get foreign aid to victims. This past September, the Philippine Commission on Audit (COA) released its comprehensive–and damning–Report on the Audit of Typhoon Yolanda Relief Operations. According to the report, of the $15 million available in the Office of Civil Defense (OCD) quick response fund, and the $1 million in donations received by the National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council (NDRRMC), not one cent was spent on the basic subsistence needs of typhoon victims, in clear violation of the statutory mandate of Republic Act 10352.

Elizabeth’s recent post highlighted some of the challenges involved in fighting corruption in a conflict zone. While a natural disaster like Typhoon Haiyan poses similar issues, the challenges–and the opportunities for effective response–differ in some important respects. On the one hand, in a natural disaster–as in a conflict situation–the chaos and breakdown of oversight, coupled with the dependence of victims on the resources, coordination, and capabilities of those in a position to provide relief creates a power imbalance that increases opportunities for corrupt actors. At the same time, although any individual natural disaster is unpredictable, the fact that such disasters will periodically occur is predictable (at least in certain disaster-prone areas), and this creates opportunities–which perhaps don’t exist to the same degree in the context of armed conflicts–to plan ahead: to take steps that can redress the potential power imbalance before the crisis occurs.

The need to plan ahead to address corruption in natural disaster response is critical because, in the immediate aftermath of something like a typhoon strike, normal governmental operations grind to a halt, and the immediate needs of disaster management override the government’s interest in strict oversight of resource allocation. The breakdown of accountability provides unscrupulous public officials with a golden opportunity to siphon off money and supplies from government funds and donations. Moreover, because the responsibility for natural disaster response falls mainly on the government, public officials placed in charge of relief operations are given a heightened opportunity to exploit victim desperation in order to advance their private interests. (In this regard, the corruption risks may be even more severe than in the armed conflict situations that Elizabeth described, where the corrupt actors are mostly NGOs and their local clients.) The aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan illustrates the potential for abuse: As foreign aid began pouring in to the hardest hit regions, reports emerged that village captains–who had been put in charge of coordinating the distribution of relief goods–were distributing relief packs and vouchers on the basis of favoritism and political patronage. In one town, a mayor was accused of distributing goods only to affiliates of his own party.

Again, the emergency situation would have made it difficult for enforcement agencies to investigate or prosecute these officials while relief efforts were ongoing. But governments in disaster-prone areas can and should take measures to address these problems both before and after a natural disaster strikes:

  • Enforcement agencies should impose increased costs upon officials who exploit the disaster for personal gain. Investigations into the misuse of relief goods should become routine after every major disaster, as should prosecution of implicated officials. Investigations and prosecutions should focus not only on stolen funding, but also on acts of extortion, hoarding, or unequal treatment of victims. Media should also play a role in deterring corrupt behavior by increasing public attention on prosecution of corrupt officials, even if it continues well beyond the immediate aftermath of the disaster.
  • Reporting mechanisms should also be ramped up. In isolated regions, military personnel could be charged with delivering reports to national anticorruption agencies based on the accounts of victims and aid workers. Anticorruption agencies could also remain in disaster-struck regions after immediate relief efforts to receive complaints from survivors when they are no longer reliant on distributed goods.
  • Advanced planning should focus on reducing the discretion of local officials. Shifts could be made to bolster the capabilities of national disaster management bodies, rather than reserving funds away that cannot be touched until disaster strikes. The recent COA report demonstrates how such funds can go misused amidst the chaos. Some of this funding could go toward building up infrastructure, investing in regional offices designed to manage or oversee equitable distribution of relief goods, and reinforcing communication structures so that media can maintain access during the disaster itself.

These few suggestions are certainly easier said than done, but they are meant to highlight that fighting corruption in the context of environmental disasters need not be confined to the disaster itself. In regions like the Philippines, where such catastrophes are, unfortunately, a recurring event, it’s important that anticorruption efforts take a long-term approach, and make clear that corrupt actions will not go unnoticed once the dust settles.

6 thoughts on “Learning from Disaster: Corruption and Environmental Catastrophe

  1. This seems like such an important problem, one I’d never really focused on before you raised it and yet that, as you lay out, opens the doors to corruption in so many ways. Many of your suggestions seem to focus on capacity-building before an emergency and establishing structures of accountability beforehand, which seems right; as you and others point out, the demands on a government in the midst of a disaster are likely going to be so pressing that designing new monitoring/accountability/etc. mechanisms then will likely take a back seat. Getting officials to put all these measures into place, though, may be particularly difficult when they are already engaged in corrupt activities of their own (I’m thinking here not just of the Philippines but also Mayor Nagin, though admittedly I’m not an expert on either case–the latter in particular may just be a case of “hypothetically could have played a part,” not “actually did”).

    Managing aid during a crisis seems like something that can so easily go awry. Outside of the issue of corruption, bNPR/ProPublica did a report on the Red Cross’s response to Sandy (http://www.propublica.org/article/the-red-cross-secret-disaster), noting that political and public relations concerns prevented the organization from responding effectively. That’s troubling enough, but the stats your opening paragraph cites really reframe the scope of the problem.

    • Thanks for this link, Katie. I had not heard about these problems with the Red Cross after Hurricanes Sandy and Isaac, but they really speak to how a crisis situation can be manipulated, and people’s desperation exploited.

      That said, I do think the Red Cross story highlights an important thing about incentives– the favor to be gained from properly handling a disaster is immense, and could motivate the corrupt officials you mention to put these measures in place. We need only think about the support Mayor Giuliani and Governor Christie received immediately after 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy to realize what a powerful political tool crisis management can be.

      While I worry that such incentives could encourage additional corrupt acts, I think it’s worth noting that the situation is not entirely hopeless. Officials do have quite a bit to gain from putting measures into place, particularly in areas where natural disasters are a recurring event.

  2. Really great post Bea. I agree that creating and implementing systems to address corruption before these disasters strike is likely the best way to combat the types of issues that you have identified. I also think that you’re absolutely correct that one method of resolving this problem may be to reduce the authority/discretion that local officials wield during natural disasters. However, I wonder if in practice this solution may raise a few issues of its own. For example, local officials, if they can be induced to act in a non-corrupt manner, are likely well-positioned to be aware of and respond to the unique needs of their community in the aftermath of a natural disaster. If this is the case then reducing their authority in disaster situations may potentially result in less efficient distribution of aid/resources to those who need them. Similarly, the task of bolstering national/regional organizations throughout a given state so that they can effectively assume some of the responsibility that local officials have traditionally wielded in disaster situations seems likely to be quite expensive. Is there potentially a concern that the project of enhancing this national system may decrease the resources available to a particular region when disaster strikes?

    I’m not sure that either of these issues are necessarily dealbreakers for your third proposal (after all, a diminished role in disaster relief efforts does not prevent local officials from sharing their expertise/knowledge of the community with national organizations). However, I think they may potentially be worth considering and also serve to highlight how valuable your first two suggestions regarding ways to deter officials from committing corrupt acts are in light of the potential value of keeping non-corrupt local officials involved in disaster relief efforts.

    • These are great points. I am definitely sensitive to the value that local officials can bring to their communities during a disaster, and I certainly don’t think that all delegations of power will lead to corruption. However, I do think that in places like the Philippines, there needs to be increased oversight to ensure that fair distribution is taking place.

      Perhaps, taking your concern into account, reducing discretion could be accomplished not only by bolstering the capabilities of national government, but also by improving coordination and collaboration between national and local authorities.

      As to your point about cost– while there is an obvious risk that resources at the local level will decrease, I actually think that there is a huge need for _smart_ reallocation of resources when it comes to building up infrastructure, funding response bodies, etc. This relates to my point about predictability. Even in a small country like the Philippines, there will be regions that are more prone to disaster than others, and regions that are already better equipped to handle disaster management. Given what we can predict about weather patterns, I think that national government should give some consideration to allocating resources based on the level of risk in each region.

      To illustrate, in the aftermath of another huge typhoon that hit the Philippines in 2009, it was reported that a large percentage of the rescue boats assigned to the Metro Manila region were 1) kept in a lowland area that was severely affected by flooding and 2) were distributed evenly throughout the capital. This meant that even after the military was able to get the boats out of flooded buildings, the most-affected regions– where people climbed to the tops of their homes for help– were receiving as many rescue boats as more elevated parts of the city that had barely any flooding at all.

      All this is to say, I think that smarter advanced planning has the potential to save costs (and lives).

  3. The scope of the problem you lay out is staggering, Bea. You focused primarily on the government response, and I wonder how it compares to lessons NGOs should learn about environmental disaster relief. Katie brings up the Red Cross response to Sandy.

    The enforcement and reporting mechanisms you suggest would be beneficial to the non-corrupt distribution of aid through NGOs, but they would have to count on the Government (especially in enforcement) to carry them out.

    The advance planning you discuss could be useful to the NGOs. However, I wonder if international NGOs do typically distribute any aid to local officials to give out, or whether they mostly distribute it directly, avoiding some of the issues you cover in your post. If they do distribute directly, would one option be for national government agencies to allocate to these international NGOs? Or is that counterproductive because it goes against local capacity building? Is there a several day delay before international NGOs become active on the ground, a delay that’s too long for the initial distribution of food and water? Sorry I have more questions and few answers, but these are some things your great post made me think about.

    • Interesting (and tough) questions. While I’m not entirely familiar with how international NGOs generally handle distribution, I would think there are at least a few problems with the national government delegating broad distribution authority to them.

      The first problem is access. In the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, the Tacloban airport was destroyed, cell towers went down, and hard-hit island provinces became isolated. Circumstances such as this require military capabilities like trained pilots, planes, etc., that NGOs simply may not have. Second, as you point out, it could undermine local capacity building, and I would be troubled by a solution that outsources management to international bodies rather than bolstering government’s ability to prevent corruption. Ducking the underlying problem might simply encourage a culture of corruption, spread discontent, and even allow government officials to escape blame when relief funds do go missing. Third, as Katie’s link makes clear, there are very good reasons to be distrustful of NGOs, too. While NGOs play a key role in disaster management, particularly in the realm of reporting, it’s important to remember that these organizations are not entirely blameless.

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