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Chapter 2.2 Themes and issues



Humanitarian response to disasters and conflict is carried out in areas where risks are high, where there may well be endemic poverty and where governance structures are usually weak and public institutions overwhelmed and under-resourced, often prior to the emergency. Humanitarian operations therefore almost by definition take place in areas where there is corruption. This, arguably, is compounded in cities with extremes of wealth and poverty, where public institutions are based, and where cash, markets and competition are concentrated.

This review found little information specific to urban areas, though there are examples relating to building practices, and efforts to combat corruption within humanitarian operations are equally applicable to both rural and urban contexts. This section looks at corruption risks within humanitarian aid operations, and good practice in reducing them.

2.2.1 Defining corruption

Transparency International (TI) defines corruption as ‘the abuse of entrusted power for private gain’.+Transparency International, Preventing Corruption in Humanitarian Operations (Berlin: Transparency International, 2014) ( ‘Private gain’ here may not only be financial: transactional sex, for instance, fits this definition. Other non-financial forms of corruption include the diversion of humanitarian assistance to benefit non-target groups, coercion and intimidation of staff or beneficiaries to participate in corruption and preferential treatment for friends or relatives in recruitment and assistance processes.+Ibid. Corruption is complex and differs in different contexts – in some societies, what elsewhere may be perceived as cronyism and nepotism can be widely accepted.

A recent review of corruption in emergencies notes that it is ‘hard to measure and difficult to separate from other issues, such as excessive political influence and economic mismanagement … 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’.+D. Alexander, ‘Corruption and the Governance of Disaster Risk’, Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Natural Hazard Science, 2017 (

2.2.2 Corruption and naturally-triggered disasters

Research indicates a strong link between disasters and corruption. One study found that ‘83% of all deaths from building collapse in earthquakes over the past 30 years occurred in countries that are anomalously corrupt’.+N. Ambrasays and R. Bilham, ‘Corruption Kills’, Nature, 469, 13 January 2011 ( Other research documents how ‘corruption linked to poor planning and regulation, unauthorised structures and inadequate municipal management presents major impediments to creating disaster resilience in Sri Lankan cities’.+A. Williams and K. Dupuy, Corruption and the City: How Aid Donors Can Support Integrity Building in Urban Spaces, U4 Brief, CMI (

A review of corruption and disasters+D. Alexander, ‘Corruption and the Governance of Disaster Risk’. concluded that:

Organized crime tends to look upon disaster as an opportunity. Reconstruction usually involves a building boom, which attracts mafia interests in the construction industries. Often, the process is not well regulated, in part because the desire to complete the process quickly prevails over the need to work methodically. Mafias can activate their contacts in government and public administration to expedite their involvement. The interference of organized crime in the construction industry tends to affect reconstruction phases by the neglect of building codes and quality assurance.

Besides involvement in reconstruction, disruption may lead to an increase in other harmful activities, including people trafficking, abduction, modern slavery such as forced prostitution and the drug trade.

2.2.3 Corruption in humanitarian operations

Corruption within humanitarian operations is particularly ugly. As TI puts it: ‘In the case of humanitarian assistance, resources have been entrusted to organisations – including national and local governments, inter-governmental organisations, NGOs and local communities – specifically for alleviating the suffering of people affected by crises and restoring their dignity’.+Transparency International, Preventing Corruption in Humanitarian Operations. The arrival of humanitarian resources in resource-poor countries with weak institutions can exacerbate power asymmetries and increase corruption, thereby undermining the humanitarian mission. Factors that contribute to reducing the transparency and accountability of decision-making processes during humanitarian crises include:+Drawn from E. Calossi, S. Sberna and A. Vannucc, ‘Disasters and Corruption, Corruption as Disaster’, in A. de Guttry et al. (eds), International Disaster Response Law (The Hague: Asser Press, 2012).

  • The need for quick decisions, often with incomplete knowledge.
  • The large amounts of incoming cash and other resources.
  • The need to recruit large numbers of people, often very quickly.
  • The pressure to act fast and show results.
  • The wide range of actors engaged in response operations (local, national and inter-national NGOs, donors, the private sector, the government, affected communities).
  • Unequal power distribution, for example between local and international NGOs, or between NGOs and affected people.

TI reports that corruption risks related to programme support functions are generally in relation to finance, supply chain management (for example procurement, transport and managing goods) and within human resources.+Transparency International, Preventing Corruption in Humanitarian Operations. Corruption risks also run through the implementation of programmes, for example in needs assessment and resource allocation, the selection of local partners, targeting and registering beneficiaries and programme monitoring and evaluation. Figure 2.1 maps assistance activities with possible corruption risks, all of which are applicable to urban contexts.+P. Ewins et al., Mapping the Risks of Corruption in Humanitarian Action (London: ODI, 2006) (, p. 7. TI’s Collective Resolution for Enhanced Accountability and Transparency in Emergencies (CREATE) project aimed to ‘produce an evidence base concerning the risks on aid integrity, in particular corruption risks, as well as prevention and mitigation measures, in relation to the implementation of humanitarian assistance’. Examples were provided from four settings: Afghanistan, the Ebola emergency in Guinea, southern Somalia and the Syrian refugee response in Lebanon. The project report, while not urban-specific, documents incidents of corruption, relating to different programming approaches.+The full report can be found at

Figure 2.1 Map of corruption risks in humanitarian emergencies

Source: P. Ewins et al., Mapping the Risks of Corruption in Humanitarian Action (London: ODI, 2006) (, p. 7.

TI’s 2014 handbook Preventing Corruption in Humanitarian Operations contains information and practical advice on tackling corruption within project support functions, for example in procurement, and throughout the project management cycle. Nonetheless, it is of great importance that the elimination of corruption and the formulation of anti-corruption policies remain context-specific. Often, policies and procedures to promote transparency, integrity and accountability are already in place in humanitarian agencies, and can serve as a starting-point to creating an organisational context that resists corruption.

While the TI handbook does not distinguish between rural and urban locations, it is highly relevant to urban programming, especially the parts concerning project cycle management. Particularly relevant sections include operating in cash environments and using cash-based programming, and construction and reconstruction. For further guidance and practical information on combating corruption, see: For other reports, case studies and guidance notes relating to corruption in humanitarian operations, see: