Corruption kills and poor governance is its willing accomplice


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Chris Kremidas-Courtney
Chris Kremidas-Courtney

Senior Advisor at Defend Democracy, Lecturer at the Institute for Security Governance and former Senior Fellow at Friends of Europe.

Picture of Megan Minnion
Megan Minnion

Senior Advisor at Uplift Afghanistan Fund

When the history of the early 21st century is written, one of its key lessons may be this: corruption kills and poor governance is its willing accomplice.

The recent devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria has killed more than 51,000 people, left more than 1.5mn people homeless and left the rubble of more than 170,00 fallen buildings. These breathtaking numbers are difficult to fathom in terms of the loss and suffering that so many in that region have experienced and continue to experience as Turkish authorities and the international community seek to provide material and health assistance to the stricken regions.

But it was endemic corruption and poor governance that made the impacts of this terrible earthquake so much worse. It started with years of corrupt officials signing off on buildings that were too poorly constructed to be earthquake-proof, leading to their failure and collapse during the earthquake and the subsequent earthquakes that followed.

In recent years, these shortcomings had been identified, but rather than fixing the problem, the government offered amnesty for existing buildings that had broken the rules, provided they paid a fee. Over ten million building owners applied for amnesty and paid the fees, which brought in a lucrative €3bn to the government. Meanwhile, more than half of Turkey’s 13mn buildings do not meet the national construction code, leaving millions of citizens vulnerable to the next earthquake.

On 4 August 2020, a massive stockpile of ammonium nitrate that had been stored unsafely in a warehouse in Beirut’s port for several years exploded, resulting in widespread damage and loss of life. The blast caused extensive damage to buildings, infrastructure and homes in the surrounding area. The force of the blast was so powerful that it caused a mushroom cloud and created a shockwave that damaged buildings as far as ten kilometres away.

After years of endemic corruption, the much larger Russian force faltered in the face of fierce and brave Ukrainian resistance

More than 200 died, while over 6,500 people were injured. Many people were left homeless, with estimates suggesting that up to 300,000 people were displaced by the explosion, which also caused significant economic consequences, and the port of Beirut – a key economic hub for Lebanon – was left severely damaged.

Once again, corruption and poor governance played a significant role in allowing the dangerous substance to remain in the port and eventually explode. Several government officials ignored repeated warnings about the dangers of the substance and failed to take action to remove or dispose of it safely. The warehouse was not properly secured or maintained, and the ammonium nitrate was stored in large quantities next to combustible materials, including fireworks.

The Lebanese government’s inability to address this issue was due in part to widespread corruption and mismanagement. The government was plagued by nepotism, cronyism and a lack of accountability, with officials often prioritising their own interests over those of the people they serve.

Furthermore, the port of Beirut was controlled by a small group of politically connected individuals who used their influence to protect their own interests, rather than focus on the safety and well-being of the public. This allowed the dangerous substance to remain in the warehouse for years, despite repeated warnings about the potential risks.

Nearly one year ago in February 2022, Russia launched a brutal new invasion of Ukraine with the bulk of its operational land forces and was expected to quickly subdue the smaller Ukrainian army. But after years of endemic corruption, the much larger Russian force faltered in the face of fierce and brave Ukrainian resistance.

Corrupt lobbying by rail companies convinced the federal government to repeal rules requiring improved braking systems

Years of falsified maintenance and training records, theft of fuel and parts, and a corrupt promotion system that favours cronyism over ability left Russia with a hollow force that has been battered by the Ukrainian army. Current Russian losses are estimated as high as 130,000 killed, 380,000 wounded, over 3,000 tanks, more than 6,000 armoured vehicles, almost 300 helicopters and a dozen warships. In the end, Russia’s endemic corruption gives Ukraine a much better chance to prevail.

One month ago, in the US state of Ohio, a train carrying hazardous chemicals, including vinyl chloride, crashed due to failing brakes and exploded in the town of East Palestine. This started a chemical fire that burned for several days and could not be safely extinguished, so authorities conducted a controlled burn that released the toxic chemicals into the air and possibly the Ohio River, a major regional water supply.

Despite years of public safety officials warning of the dangers of transporting vinyl chloride and the need to replace age-old braking systems on freight trains, their warnings were ignored or repealed. Corrupt lobbying by rail companies convinced the federal government to repeal rules requiring improved braking systems and to water down regulations on the movement of hazardous materials.

As a result, 10,000 tons of oil spilled into the fertile Ohio soil, while vinyl chloride and other cancer-causing chemicals were released into the atmosphere because of the toxic burn. Thousands in the area were exposed to the fumes and many may experience severe health issues in the future, including shortened life spans. In addition, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources estimated more than 43,000 animals have died since the train derailment.

Just over two weeks ago, a passenger train in Greece filled with college students on their way back from school holidays collided head-on with a freight train near the town of Tempe. The resulting horrific crash, the deadliest in Greek history, left 57 dead, 85 injured and two still missing.

Greek citizens are expressing their anger at what they see as a corrupt system that does not care about people

While the crash has been blamed on human error and a stationmaster has been arrested for negligence, evidence also points to systemic negligence as contributing to the causes of this tragedy. Firstly, an automated safety and warning system for the trains was supposed to be installed three years ago, but the work was never completed. In addition, a less sophisticated safety system that was previously supposed to be completed in 2007 still remained incomplete 16 years later.

According to the Hellenic train drivers’ union, they have relied on manual signalling for years since the electronic warning systems have been inoperable. Among the reasons that the union cites are the theft of cables from the signalling system by criminal groups and delayed installation due to lack of funding. A previous derailment in 2017 at Adendros also occurred due to the same lack of a functioning electronic warning system.

Additional reporting indicates the trains used in Greece had previously been banned from use in Switzerland due to safety problems, including a lack of modern fire protection systems.

Two weeks prior to the crash, the European Commission referred Greece to the European Court of Justice for failing to fulfil its obligations based on the directive on the creation of a single European railway area (2012/34/EU).

Greek citizens are expressing their anger at what they see as a corrupt system that does not care about people. Demonstrators have been protesting in front of the Hellenic Railways headquarters and the national rail union went on a 24-hour strike to protest the ongoing lack of safety systems that caused over 57 to die, including eight of their fellow rail workers.

Corruption loses wars, erodes resilience and leaves societies more vulnerable

We also saw how corruption and poor governance led to more deaths during the recent coronavirus pandemic, with some politicians being more interested in politicising the crisis than solving it. According to Transparency International, the pandemic was “not just a health and economic crisis, but a corruption crisis as well, with countless lives lost due to the insidious effects of corruption.”

We’ve spent billions fighting terrorism, with the West’s involvement in its perceived epicentre, Afghanistan, being the largest-ever multinational operation abroad since the Second World War. Over 20 years, at least $1tn was spent, hundreds of thousands of Afghans and 3,500 NATO soldiers lost their lives, and over 20,000 coalition soldiers returned home wounded.

Corruption was deemed one of the top reasons – if not the top reason – for mission failure and why the Taliban were able to take the provincial cities, one by one, over eight days, and march into the Presidential Palace on 15 August 2021 and collapse the two-decade-old Republic.

“Corruption eroded the ANDSF [Afghan National Defence and Security Forces] capabilities, undermining its legitimacy and efficiency. U.S. efforts to mitigate corruption were stymied by a culture of impunity and a lack of political will,” claimed the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction in a February 2023 report.

Corruption loses wars, erodes resilience and leaves societies more vulnerable to hybrid and transnational threats, while making the impact of natural disasters and transportation accidents that much worse. It’s time to take on corruption with the same level of zeal and commitment that we’ve put into far less dangerous security threats because corruption kills and poor governance is its willing accomplice.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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