Aid workers and others with experience from disasters, are well aware of the severe impact corruption has on disaster management. The problem with corruption is of course that it is opaque; and often occurs in countries where transparency is low and press freedom repressed. Hence, it can continue undisturbed. Journalists or others who want to investigate cases of severe corruption also risk putting themselves in danger.
In academic literature the influence of corruption on disaster management is mentioned; but mostly in a generic way without elaborating on the matter. When I browsed through the index lists of my books on disaster management, the word corruption occurred in only one of them. Articles that do exist are often shared among academics or networks of professionals. In other words, within closed communities talking to themselves.
Therefore, aiming to reach a wider audience; and in a series of articles I will highlight what is more widely known about disasters and corruption, what is less known, and my own take on the matter.
Let´s start with what we know.
First of all: What is corruption?
Corruption is by Transparency International defined as: “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain.”
Fraud is a broader concept and entails all kinds of cheating, not only related to government and official institutions.
Often these two terms are used interchangeably. To me they are just different manifestations of the same phenomenon: a culture of cheating that entails, among others, bribery, illicit transactions, nepotism, embezzlement and buying votes.
“….throughout the whole world corruption is one of the principal causes of disaster.”
Post-disaster: Corruption and Disaster Recovery
Much is written about relief and recovery funds ending up in the wrong places. Some cases are documented, some assumed. The problem is that little is available regarding exactly how, how much and who has been involved. Worldwide, few cases have been brought to court.
One exception is Italy, a country with a relatively free press, where one can find plenty of examples. Disasters that happened decades ago still receive funding, despite local protests, and the fact that only a tiny fraction of it has been spent on actual relief and recovery. Several cases, involving broad and long-lasting charges of fraud and mafia-related corruption, have been brought to court.
In many other countries it is hard to find such in-depth documentation. When I tried to open a link to the official report on the Audit of Typhoon Yolanda Relief Operations in the Philippines, I was told that the network administrator had blocked the site.
Articles found on the web often just hint at the problem: how recovery funds present huge temptations in terms of filling private pockets. Some examples are earthquakes in Pakistan, Nepal and Haiti, and floods in Bulgaria.The list is long.
In recent years several strategies, codes and other documents have been developed by international organisations and agencies on how to prevent or tackling corruption in disaster relief. Gradually the international aid community, much due to pressure from donors, has started to acknowledge the problem: a precondition for taking action.
Pre-Disaster: Corruption and Construction
Another aspect of disasters and corruption, well known, is the corruption going on in construction. Several examples can be found of the use of substandard materials or techniques, leading to disastrous results. Schools in Sichuan, China , or apartment buildings in Turkey that collapsed during earthquakes belong to the more known cases. Corrupt local politicians and bureaucrats together with easily bribed inspectors facilitated these outcomes.
That relates not only to disasters caused by natural hazards, but even to disasters caused by man-made hazards. For instance fires in garment factories in Bangladesh, causing numerous lives.
Reports or warnings of a coming disaster are ignored. Often due to the fact that officials have already received considerable amounts of funding from the industry owners.
The Fundao mining dam disaster in Brazil in 2015 left nineteen deaths and several towns destroyed. The mining company had given generous donations to politicians. According to Al Jazeera, the dam was built by cheap material and the company received a renewed licence despite reported risk of a burst.
Corruption shaping disasters
Just as important as the issues described above, is the question of how corruption actually shapes disasters. How does corruption and fraud contribute to vulnerability in general? And influence the impact and scope of disasters? Those are far less discussed questions with far less answers. The connection is perceived but not well established. In the next blog I will offer you some reflections on that.