26 Mar, 2014
Oddly for such a staunchly secular activity, the insurance industry includes within its standard glossaries the term ‘Act of God.’ This is legalese for events which are considered to be beyond human control, such as floods and earthquakes, cyclones and landslides – disasters, in short.
And yet it is largely agreed that disasters are not beyond human control. Indeed, disaster, by definition, is an event which relies upon human action and decision making. The United Nations notes that:
Disasters are often described as a result of the combination of the exposure to a hazard; the conditions of vulnerability that are present; and insufficient capacity or measures to reduce or cope with the potential negative consequences of the hazard.
Many factors contribute to the ‘conditions of vulnerability’ that are present, but one such, and the topic of this post, is corruption.
No disaster without vulnerability
In 2010, the World Bank and the UN published ‘Natural Hazards, Unnatural Disasters’[R1] underscoring what has long been a stable of disaster risk management: that natural hazards are all well and good when they take place outside of areas of human systems and communities, or when those systems or communities are not susceptible to the effects of such hazards. Deaths and damages in disaster events occur due to ‘acts of omission and commission’ (PDF, p.1) on behalf of human societies or groups:
Every disaster is unique, but each exposes actions – by individuals and governments at different levels – that, had they been different, would have resulted in few deaths and less damage (p. 1).
This is a key point, and one often overlooked in popular conceptions of disasters. By ‘popular conception’, I guess we should include that of the insurance industry also who’s ‘Act of God’ goes directly against this gaunt re-evaluation of social and governmental responsibility for disasters.
Corruption leads to vulnerability of people, assets and systems
‘Corruption amplifies the negative effect of disasters,’ says Raffaele Asquer, Ph.D. Candidate at the Department of Political Science, UCLA. ‘Cross‐national surveys consistently indicate the construction industry as the sector of the economy where corruption is most widespread,’ he notes.
And because cities are the areas where most construction takes place, and are usually the agencies tasked with regulation of construction, from permitting of building projects through the inspection of construction sites, corruption in this sector is largely a municipal affair.
Prof. Ian Davis of Oxford Brooks has spent over thirty years in the field. ‘I’ve seen a lot of building failure linked to ignorance and because contractors get away with using the wrong materials. It’s about corruption and faulty construction. For example, sea sand is cheaper that other sands but if you mix it in your concrete the steel reinforcing rods will rust because of the salt. I’ve seen this a lot,’ he says.
Beyond construction is regulation and law, an area long flaunted by corrupt housing developers and infrastructure providers. Asquer explains ‘When the demand for new buildings increases, developers have a greater incentive to bribe public officials into changing or disregarding the existing land use plan, so that areas that were considered unsafe can be developed. Therefore, we expect that in more corrupt countries a larger proportion of the building stock is exposed to natural hazards. This leads to higher death tolls when disasters occur.’
Davis agrees. He sees four areas of corruption in city governments which directly affect disaster losses. In addition to corruption in construction and land use regulation, Davis notes that the tendering process is another area where corruption can enter. Such practice involves bribes by the contractor during the tendering process, either to other contractors (i.e. price fixing), or to government officials tasked with evaluating and choosing tenders.
But corruption also reduces overall economic development in cities
The effect of corruption on disasters can be intuitively grasped. But how much of it, I wonder, is corruption and how much is simply the fact that corruption tends to lessen the investment in public infrastructure and other urban systems (utilities such as water and electricity, critical facilities like health clinics, etc.) which are essential during disasters.
In response to my query, the research seems solid. ‘I find that the effect of corruption on earthquake fatalities is statistically significant, after controlling for economic development and other confounding factors,’ Asquer notes. ‘The lower the level of corruption, the fewer victims are caused by earthquakes. Also, considering a broader range of disasters (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides, and floods), I find that higher corruption levels are associated with higher fatality rates – also after controlling for overall economic development.’
Stamping it out
Confronting this kind of thing is tricky, in part because corruption is, by definition, furtive. ‘Corruption cannot be tackled piece by piece, it has to be tackled from the top-level,’ notes Davis.
Easier said than done, of course. I ask him what he would do if he was the mayor of a city in Asia, seeking to reduce corruption and build the capacity of the city’s administration and systems. ‘I would start by forming alliances with people of integrity – religious leaders, but also teachers. Teachers have incredible ethics. I would say ‘Look we need to work together on this.’ Then I would look very closely at anyone involved in supervising the major laws, and I would tackle them one by one. The building inspection people, the police et cetera and I would try to form consensus. I would also look at trying to make sure that people are getting paid correctly – government officials are sometimes forced to rely on bribes as a form of income because their salary is so low.’
For the construction industry, Davis also has suggestions for building transparency and honesty. ‘If you’re training young craftsmen, start from an ethical basis. You have to ask, what are the norms and values from which we work? These need to be the starting point.’
Interestingly, while there is increasing attention given to disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation in urban areas – mainly due to the increasing intensity, duration and frequency of extreme climate events and the growing concentration of human population and assets in cities – there is very little attention to the effect of corruption in the heady cocktail that is global development circa 2014. This, according to Davis and others, needs to change.
‘The trouble is that everyone is loosing and suffering by this corruption,’ Davis says. ‘It needs to become one of the main issues in disaster risk reduction and international development — it’s a major, major issue. Everybody is loosing by it.’