Corruption and Deadly Accidents

After last week’s catastrophic explosion in Beirut—which killed over 150 people, injured thousands, and left hundreds of thousands homeless—Lebanese citizens are rightly demanding a full investigation of the incident and accountability for those responsible. The official reports so far have stated that the source of the blast was an abandoned Russian cargo ship carrying a large quantity of ammonium nitrate; it is not clear why that vessel and its dangerous cargo, which arrived at the port in 2013, were allowed to remain for so long despite repeated warnings about the dangers. Some commentators have expressed skepticism about the official account, and suggested that the blast was caused by illegal munitions being smuggled through Lebanon. We do not yet know, and may never know, the full story.

Much of the coverage of the incident has emphasized the widespread corruption of the Lebanese government, and many Lebanese protestors have emphasized this same theme. It is not yet clear whether corruption had much directly to do with this incident. The official account so far suggests negligence and mismanagement rather than intentional malfeasance. But the instinct to suspect corruption is entirely understandable, because there is ample evidence that corruption is often a significant contributing cause of many deadly accidents. Indeed, while much of the public discussion about the costs of corruption, particularly by donor agencies and international institutions, focuses on macroeconomic outcomes (such as per capita income, GDP growth rates, and economic inequality) or on other measures of human development (such as education, literacy, and health), corruption is also a significant contributing cause of avoidable accidental deaths. 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