Concrete Graft: Thoughts on the MCCI Report on the Mexico City Earthquake

On September 11, Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity (MCCI), a private-sector organization, issued a report on the results of its investigation into the collapse of dozens of buildings in Mexico City in the September 19, 2017 Central Mexico earthquake, which took 228 lives.   According to the Los Angeles Times, the report linked the collapses to corruption, finding “that dozens of buildings that collapsed in the quake had been shoddily constructed and wrongly deemed safe by building inspectors.”  Even though experts from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) characterized Mexico City’s Building Code as a “state-of-the-art code,” the Times reported that a principal reason that unsafe construction continues is “outsourcing of building inspections to private engineers who are hired and paid by developers, an arrangement that gives engineers an incentive to declare buildings safe, even when they aren’t.”   In addition, MCCI investigative journalism director Salvador Camarena reportedly “criticized the fact that it is not possible to easily access information about a building’s history including the construction method used.”  (A YouTube video relating to the report is available via the MCCI website.)

Mexico’s tragic experience is just the latest instance of countries with substantial bribery and corruption problems suffering the tragic consequences of corruption-influenced substandard construction.  Here are a few of the more prominent examples in recent years:

  • Iran: In November 2017, a 7.3 magnitude earthquake that killed at least 530 people and injured thousands of others brought down many state-built homes, which Iranian President Hassan Rohani attributed to corruption in construction contracts.
  • India: In August 2013, 150 people reportedly died in Mumbai “in building collapses resulting from substandard or illegal construction.” An Indian Supreme Court Justice, Madan B. Lokur, reportedly said that thousands of buildings in Mumbai are unsafe.
  • Bangladesh: In April 2013, Rana Plaza, an industrial building used by several garment factories, collapsed, resulting in the deaths of more than 1,130 people.  The collapse, described as “one of the world’s worst industrial accidents,” led to the Bangladesh Anti-Corruption Commission charging 18 people, including the owner of Rana Plaza, Mohammad Sohel Rana.  Rana was eventually convicted and imprisoned on corruption-related charges.
  • Haiti: The January 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 200,000 to 250,000 people also caused the pervasive collapse or semi-collapse of buildings across the country.
  • Egypt: In December 2007, more than three dozen people were reported killed in the collapse of a 12-story apartment building in Alexandria. At the time, illegal building was reportedly ubiquitous in Egypt; the governor of Alexandria said that there were approximately 31,000 known building violations in the city, and the head of the city council said that at least 6,500 buildings “are near collapse.”  By 2016, Daily News Egypt reported that Alexandria had become one of “the top cities with illegal buildings, with 14,521 buildings without licences.”

The linkage between widespread corruption and fatal building collapses is not random.  A 2011 academic study of global earthquake fatalities found that in the three preceding decades “83 percent of all deaths caused by the collapse of buildings during earthquakes occurred in countries considered to be unusually corrupt.”

The factors that influence substandard construction in countries with higher corruption risk are widely recognized.  Lack of a national building code, urban population density, increases in housing demands, proximity of buildings to earthquake zones, and property laws that developers can exploit to frustrate government efforts to demolish unsound buildings are just some of the factors that can influence and interact with corrupt building practices, including “use of substandard materials, poor assembly methods, the inappropriate placement of buildings and non-adherence to building codes.”

What appears to be lacking is a consensus among nations that building-related corruption warrants special attention and some form of coordinated and collective action on a global scale.  Admittedly (to paraphrase the late Tip O’Neill) all building is local, as are the laws and regulations that are supposed to ensure safe and sound construction.  But most types of corruption do not pose a risk of widespread deaths and devastation to neighborhoods and workplaces.  Some multinational organization with expertise in anti-corruption measures, such as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, could be a suitable convenor of a long-term initiative, which could marshal resources to explore the problem on an international scale and develop frameworks that governments could use or adapt as necessary to combat the problem at a national level.  All types of corruption are unacceptable, but some ought to be more unacceptable than others when their cost includes human lives.

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