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