20 January 2011

Corruption Kills

Nicholas Ambraseys and Roger Bilham (a colleague here at Colorado) have a paper in Nature this week on the relationship of an index of corruption and earthquake fatalities.  Their analysis offers some quantitative support for what has long been assumed to be the case:
In sum, there is statistical support for widespread anecdotal evidence of a correlation between corruption and loss of life in earthquakes. Haiti and Iran are extreme examples of nations where fatalities from earthquakes are excessive and where perceived levels of corruption are above average. The statistics also support last year's widely voiced opinions that the probability of earthquake-related deaths is less a function of geography and more the ability to afford earthquake-resistant construction and to enforce building codes.

Sadly, these figures have no predictive value. Moreover, even if corrupt practices were eliminated, many present-day impoverished nations will have inherited a building stock that to some degree incorporates the products of corrupt practices. The problem of what to do about these existing poorly built constructions is particularly difficult, if not economically insoluble.
Their analysis suggests that direct aid to foreign countries for the purposes of rebuilding may not be effective:
But our analyses suggest that international and national funds set aside for earthquake resistance in countries where corruption is endemic are especially prone to being siphoned off. The structural integrity of a building is no stronger than the social integrity of the builder, and each nation has a responsibility to its citizens to ensure adequate inspection. In particular, nations with a history of significant earthquakes and known corruption issues should stand reminded that an unregulated construction industry is a potential killer.
Here is the caption that goes with the figure at the top of this post:
Corruption versus the level of corruption that might be expected from per capita income. Of all earthquake fatalities attributable to building collapse in the past three decades, 82.6% occur in societies that are anomalously corrupt (left-hand corner of the plot).