Building Booms and Bribes: The Corruption Risks of Urban Development

Windfall gains often create opportunities for corruption. The big inflow of money increases the opportunities and incentives for kickbacks and bribery as a means to capture new funds. Well-known examples of this phenomenon include disaster relief efforts, resource booms, and humanitarian aid. Yet the concern is not limited to those contexts. Changes in the price and value of land in a given area can also create the opportunity for windfall, and associated corruption risks.

The corruption risks in the land sector and real estate industry have been discussed broadly as pervasive; routine land administration and land grabbing provide ample opportunities for corruption to flourish where land governance is weak. Yet these discussions sometimes overlook another sort of corruptogenic windfall in land markets, one that is often hiding in plain sight: the effects of gentrification of urban centers. Experiences from cities around the world exemplify three common ways in which these windfall gains from gentrification provide opportunity for corruption. Continue reading

A Tale of Two Earthquakes: Different Types of Corruption in Nepal and Sichuan

In the wake of the horrifying human toll taken by the earthquake in Nepal, attention has once again turned to the role of corruption in increasing the original death toll and in hampering the effectiveness of aid. Rick recently posted about it on the blog. Bribery of building inspectors enabled a great deal of new construction in Kathmandu that violated the building code, and it was these buildings that were the most likely to trap people when the earthquake hit. There is a feeling of deja vu about the allegations. After the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province in China, corruption in the building of schools led to thousands of additional deaths when schools across the region came down on pupils. But not all corruption is created equal, and the corruption in building in Kathmandu may have been less harmful than that in Sichuan province.

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Death by Corruption: The Nepal Earthquake

Although press reports attribute the growing death toll in Nepal to the April 25 earthquake, earthquakes were in fact the proximate cause of very few fatalities.  Nepalese did not die from shaking ground but, as news footage shows, because they were crushed by falling buildings.  The link between earthquakes, collapsing buildings and fatalities has been known for centuries if not millennia as has the solution: codes setting standards that ensure all structures can withstand the shock of a quake.  Since 1994, Nepal’s building code has contained several provisions requiring buildings to be earthquake proof, but as the New Zealand consultant who helped develop the ’94 code told Bloomberg News, drafting a quakeproof code is easy, “the hard thing is to get implementation.”

That is where corruption makes its appearance.  Builders can find many ways to bribe around building codes, and judging from New York Times correspondent Chris Buckley’s May 1 story, Nepalese builders found them all.  The collapsed buildings in Katmandu “exposed not only flaky concrete and brittle pillars, but also a system of government enforcement rotted by corruption and indifference. . . . Residents and building experts say the corruption is an open secret . . . .  The developers and landlords who slap up the buildings . . . know they will rarely be punished by officials, who are often happy to look the other way for a price.”

The earthquake – corruption – death nexus is a predictable part of post-quake reporting.  Stories similar to Buckley’s appeared following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the 2008 one in China’s Sichuan province, the 2001 quake in the Indian state of Gujarat, and the 1999 one in the Marmara region of Turkey.  But as with the Nepal story, they were based on anecdotes and impressions.  Is corruption really why so many buildings become coffins once a quake strikes?  And if it is, what can be done to curb it? Continue reading