Turkey Earthquake: Where corruption and natural disasters meet

Turkey Earthquake: Where corruption and natural disasters meet
2023-03-13

On 6th of February, two massive earthquakes with the magnitude 7.8 and 7.5 rocked Turkey (and Syria). An estimated 14 million people in more than 10 cities were affected in and around of southeastern of Turkey. More than 300.000 buildings were either destroyed or severely damaged. Thousands of people were struck under rubble. In response to Turkey’s call for international help, 90 countries and 16 international organizations have provided aid to support search and rescue efforts in the earthquake zone. The EU has made significant support to Turkey through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism.

As of 6 March 2023, death toll reached to 45.986 only in Turkey. At least 1.5 million people are left homeless living in tents and temporary shelters while an estimated two million people have left the quake zone. Governments and international organisations from around the world have also stepped in with further assistance to address the most urgent humanitarian needs in affected provinces. The World Bank announced an initial package of $1.78 billion in assistance to help relief and recovery efforts. The US government sent humanitarian assistance of $185 million to Turkey and Syria to help the two countries cope with the devastating effects of the earthquake. Together with the £5 million Aid Match from the UK government, the public donations to Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC)’s Turkey-Syria Earthquake Appeal have reached to £101.5 ($120) million.

Turkey has a long history of earthquakes since it is situated on several active fault lines. The Anatolian transform fault system is one of the most active systems in the world generating deadly earthquakes over the centuries. Yet, the earthquake that rocked Turkey more a month ago became the deadliest natural disaster in the country's modern history. It was one of the most powerful earthquakes to hit the region in a century, but this is not the only reason why it was so deadly. The academic research shows corruption amplifies the resulting death toll of an earthquake. It is argued that the deterioration of public institutions and propagation of lower quality building stock result in more severe outcomes following a natural disaster. Turkey is a textbook example of what happens when corruption meets natural disasters.

Turkey has experienced one of the most dramatic authoritarian turns in this century as the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has gradually increased its power grip. The consolidation of power around the executive prevented other institutions, such as the legislature, judiciary, audit agencies, ombudsman and media, to perform their duties in effectively participating in anticorruption measures and exposing corruption at the top. Patronage networks also reached into the private sector. The procurement and tendering processes were often rigged to favour state resources which are directed towards friendly companies in return of financial support in election campaigns. The transition to a presidential regime in 2018 has further widened the executive’s control over the institutional checks and accountability mechanisms and empowered the Presidential Office while raising concerns over state capture in the judiciary and collusion between political and business elites.

It has been more than five years since Turkey shifted from parliamentarian to presidential regime. The presidential regime, it was argued, makes state capacity stronger and creates more effective decision-making processes that will enable authorities to give early, quick, and swift responses to global crises and challenges. The AKP’s presidential regime consolidated state authority but destroyed the state capacity as revealed by the recent earthquake (The capacity of the Presidential regime came under question during wild forest fires 2 years ago and during the coronavirus pandemic). Since AKP led presidential regime’s disaster response largely remained slow, inflexible, and incompetent it was non-state actors that provided much-needed services to those affected by the earthquake, providing shelter, food, and medical supplies raising concerns over the state capacity.

Why did Turkey’s presidential regime largely fail to respond to the earthquake in the early days of the disaster?

The answer is a bit more complicated than corruption. I have three explanations.

First is about erosion of the bureaucratic administrative capacity. Turkish government has purged thousands from state institutions following the corruption scandal that erupted in 2013 and then the coup attempt of 2016. Instead, loyalists were stacked in positions of strategic importance without meritocracy and expertise. For example, state agencies tasked with rescue efforts have been weakened as they are staffed with loyalists. Turkish Red Crescent (Türk Kızılay), formerly Kemalist-aligned agency, has long been viewed as a neutral and able aid organisation by Turkish society. Kızılay had played a pioneering role when a 7.4-magnitude quake that hit Izmit in 1999. Yet, its roles were largely transferred to AFAD, Turkey’s Emergency and Disaster Relief Agency in 2009. Kızılay itself became embroiled in corruption scandals over time due to its alleged ties to Islamic charities like the Ensar foundation. A further scandal erupted after revelations that Kızılay sold tents to a charity instead of donating them to people in urgent need after the recent earthquake. Established in 2009, AFAD has become the main agency for disaster relief. AFAD is tied directly to the presidential palace and managed by loyalist staff with no background in disaster relief. For example,  the director of AFAD’s natural disaster emergency response is a theology graduate.

Second, the excessive centralization of power under the Presidential office failed to coordinate emergency relief efforts. The local stakeholders and aid workers were left alone in the quake zone. The centralization of administration has gained pace with the introduction of a Presidential system in 2018. Under the reformed system, the President has the power to issue decrees without the supervision of the legislature, to design and govern the public administration system and bureaucracy through decrees without parliamentary oversight and to set the criteria for bureaucratic appointments and to personally make these appointments. All the central agencies exercising direct control over the bureaucracy, the military, the economy, the media, civil society, and public religious life are accountable to the President. The newly established Presidential Office is surrounded by an inner circle of inter-ministerial offices and councils made up from an exclusive group of individuals with mostly uniform educational backgrounds and worldviews, and members of co-opted civil society organizations. These features give the president enormous power over the government and bureaucracy while reducing autonomy in vertically and horizontally differentiated systems. The centralization of the administrative enabled the AKP government to pass substantive legal and institutional reforms in the fields of construction, real estate, local governance, and housing finance and weaken independent expert oversight. Civil engineers, architects, and urban planners who expose construction flaws and open court cases against dangerous projects are silenced excluded from the process of approving and inspecting construction projects. Some are even sent to jail with the allegations of terrorism.

Third, the politicisation of state institutions under the Presidential regime contributed to high death toll which otherwise was preventable. The increasing executive discretion over public procurement and privatization enabled the AKP government to accumulate capital and allocate state resources to party cronies and patronage networks. The companies with close ties to the government benefited from privatizations during the AKP’s years in power, branching out into the construction sector and receiving lucrative bids and contracts without competitive tenders and proper regulatory oversight. In addition, construction amnesties were granted for the unlicensed and mostly unsecure building. The history of construction amnesties dates back to 1980s yet the amnesty which was passed in 2018 before the elections was the biggest construction pardon in the history of the republic and generated $4.2bn fee for the government’s budget. Under the pressure of the upcoming elections, schedule for the 14th of May, the AKP government rushes to build tens of thousands of housing units in the provinces hit by earthquakes to silence the criticism over its handling of the disaster. No-bid contracts for reconstruction of 400.000 buildings have been already signed with companies close to the government without conducting thorough geological surveys. In the majority of the provinces affected by the quakes, the AKP and its nationalist ally won with a plurality of votes or a slim majority in the 2018 elections. It seems like with its quick reconstruction plans the government aims to fix its image in the region ahead of the election. Yet, the impact of such fast-paced construction plans on the upcoming election results is far from certain. But what is certain is that non-scientific solutions would result in greater catastrophes in the future.

Published by The School of Social Science, University of Aberdeen

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