It is much easier to rationalize tolerating corruption when it is perceived to be a relatively minor economic problem linked to cultural factors and viewed as an inevitable cost of doing business in certain countries. Corruption, however, can be deadly as well as costly. The good news is that corruption’s lethality has received more attention, including recent studies that attempt to quantify the death toll resulting from corrupt practices.
One such study analyzed the probable effect of corruption on the death tolls from earthquakes, particularly those resulting from the collapse of buildings. Noting that poor building practices can turn even moderate earthquakes into major disasters, the authors concluded that 83 percent of all deaths from building collapses in earthquakes over the past 30 years occurred in countries perceived to have abnormally high levels of corruption. Such deaths have been increasing despite advances in the ability to construct earthquake-resistant buildings. As an example of the difference properly constructed buildings can make, the authors contrasted the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which killed many thousands, with a quake of similar intensity in New Zealand which did not result in fatalities. Another recent study attempted to quantify the link between corruption and deaths of children due to poor health care.
These studies lend statistical support to the already substantial and accumulating anecdotal evidence linking corruption to death and injury. As the authors recognize, not all casualties from building collapses and substandard healthcare systems can be attributed to corruption. Some countries and localities, for example, cannot afford to construct state-of-the-art buildings and sanitation systems. To alleviate this problem, however, massive amounts of aid have been poured into underdeveloped regions by governments, development banks, and NGOs, all too much of which has been siphoned off before reaching its intended beneficiaries. In these cases, the problem is not poverty – a project budget may be adequate to fund, for example, earthquake-resistant school buildings – but the looting of project funds to finance corruption schemes.
There is an inexorable logic linking most such schemes, whatever their superficial differences may be. To generate the funds needed to bribe inspectors, auditors, and/or other government officials, and/or to pay themselves inflated profits, participants in the schemes must divert resources from elsewhere, such as from the amounts budgeted for materials in construction projects. By using substandard materials and/or by omitting key materials entirely — such as those needed to hold up a school building under the stress of an earthquake — the conspirators can appear to complete a project while secretly diverting vital funds to themselves and the corrupt officials whose acquiescence makes the scheme possible. In such a scheme, the participants are not just stealing money, but are enriching themselves at the risk that innocent persons, including schoolchildren, will be crushed or buried alive when the building collapses in an earthquake.
IACRC’s courses and educational materials describe the many ways corrupt schemes operate in particular industries, sectors and regions, both during the procurement and implementation stages of projects. They are designed to equip law enforcement, audit, regulatory, and oversight personnel with the knowledge and skills needed to deter corruption and to detect it in its early stages, before its full tragic consequences are realized. Because those consequences can include large scale deaths and injuries to unsuspecting members of the public, children as well as adults, it is urgent that the most effective anti-corruption countermeasures be implemented where they are most needed.
It is not enough that there be strong anti-corruption policies at the highest levels of governments, NGOs, and international aid institutions; those in the front lines of the fight against corruption must be able and willing to implement the policies. In the end, a well-trained and incorruptible construction inspector may be the one who saves a town’s schoolchildren from being killed in an earthquake.
2M Hanf, A Van-Melle, F Fraisse, et al., “Corruption Kills: Estimating the Global Impact of Corruption on Children Deaths,
PLos ONE 2011; 6: e26990. Doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0026990.