This article considers how corruption affects the management of disaster mitigation, relief, and recovery. Corruption is a very serious and pervasive issue that affects all countries and many operations related to disasters, yet it has not been studied to the degree that it merits. This is because it is difficult to define, hard to measure and difficult to separate from other issues, such as excessive political influence and economic mismanagement. Not all corruption is illegal, and not all of that which is against the law is vigorously pursued by law enforcement. In essence, corruption subverts public resources for private gain, to the damage of the body politic and people at large. It is often associated with political violence and authoritarianism and is a highly exploitative phenomenon. Corruption knows no boundaries of social class or economic status. It tends to be greatest where there are strong juxtapositions of extreme wealth and poverty.
Corruption is intimately bound up with the armaments trade. The relationship between arms supply and humanitarian assistance and support for democracy is complex and difficult to decipher. So is the relationship between disasters and organized crime. In both cases, disasters are seen as opportunities for corruption and potentially massive gains, achieved amid the fear, suffering, and disruption of the aftermath. In humanitarian emergencies, black markets can thrive, which, although they support people by providing basic incomes, do nothing to reduce disaster risk. In counties in which the informal sector is very large, there are few, and perhaps insufficient, controls on corruption in business and economic affairs.
Corruption is a major factor in weakening efforts to bring the problem of disasters under control. The solution is to reduce its impact by ensuring that transactions connected with disasters are transparent, ethically justifiable, and in line with what the affected population wants and needs. In this respect, the phenomenon is bound up with fundamental human rights. Denial or restriction of such rights can reduce a person’s access to information and freedom to act in favor of disaster reduction. Corruption can exacerbate such situations. Yet disasters often reveal the effects of corruption, for example, in the collapse of buildings that were not built to established safety codes.
The immediate aftermath of a great urban earthquake is a dramatic and terrible event, comparable to a massive terrorist attack. Yet the shocking impact soon fades from the public mind and receives surprisingly little attention from historians, unlike wars and human atrocities. In 1923, the Great Kanto earthquake and its subsequent fires demolished most of Tokyo and Yokohama and killed around 140,000 Japanese: a level of devastation and fatalities comparable with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. But the second event has infinitely more resonance in public consciousness and historical studies than the first. Indeed, most people would be challenged to name a single earthquake with an indisputable historical impact, including even the most famous of all earthquakes: the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906.
In truth, however, great earthquakes, from ancient times—as recorded by Greek and biblical writers—to the present day, have had major cultural, economic, and political consequences—often a combination of all three—some of which were beneficial. Thus, the current prime minister of India owes his election in 2014 to an earthquake that devastated part of his home state of Gujarat in 2001, which led to its striking economic growth. The martial law imposed on Tokyo and Yokohama after the 1923 earthquake gave new authority to the Japanese army, which eventually took over the Japanese government and led Japan to war with China and the world. The destruction of San Francisco in 1906 produced a boom in rebuilding and financial and technological development of the surrounding area on the San Andreas Fault, including what became Silicon Valley. A great earthquake in Venezuela in 1812 was the principal cause of the temporary defeat of its leader Simon Bolivar by the Spanish colonial regime, but his subsequent exile led to his permanent freeing of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela from Spanish rule. The catastrophic Lisbon earthquake of 1755—as well known in the early 19th century as the 1945 atomic bombings are today—was a pivotal factor in the freeing of Enlightenment science from Catholic religious orthodoxy, as epitomized by Voltaire’s satirical novel Candide, written in response to the earthquake. Even the minor earthquakes in Britain in 1750, the so-called Year of Earthquakes, produced the earliest scientific understanding of earthquakes, published by the Royal Society: the beginning of seismology.
The long-term impact of a great earthquake depends on its epicenter, magnitude, and timing—and also on human factors: the political, social, intellectual, religious, and cultural resources specific to a region’s history. Each earthquake-struck society offers its own particular lesson, and yet, taken together, such earth-shattering events have important shared consequences for the history of the world.