The Optimist

Seismic Inequality

Rich countries have gotten very good at keeping people alive in earthquakes. But that doesn't mean poor countries should try to emulate them.

The death and destruction in Japan may be horrifying, but the record earthquake that struck March 11 off the east coast of Honshu island still suggests one important lesson: Building codes and land use regulations can save lives. Japan's strict guidelines have been widely credited for keeping the death toll down to a fraction of the casualties in Haiti's quake last year. But that doesn't mean we should import them lock, stock, and barrel to the developing world, where the great majority of earthquake-related mortality occurs. The regulations are also complex and expensive. And there are much cheaper and more straightforward ways to save lives.

It is too early to know the full extent of the tragedy still unfolding in Japan. But one thing we do know is that the great majority of deaths -- and most of the problems at the nuclear plants -- are the result not of the quake itself, but of the resulting tsunami. Things could have been much worse. Although the YouTube images of shaken workers and crashing shelves in Tokyo were frightening, there were very few injuries or deaths reported in the capital city -- or anywhere else where flood waters didn't come rushing ashore. This despite the earthquake being the largest recorded in Japan's history -- and orders of magnitude larger than the devastating Haiti quake.

That means the usual pattern has been repeated: Earthquakes don't kill people in rich countries; they kill people in poor countries. The 1988 earthquake in Armenia was half as strong as the 1989 quake in Loma Prieta near San Francisco, and yet caused 25,000 deaths compared with 100 in San Francisco. The 2003 Paso Robles quake in California had the same power as the Bam quake in Iran in 2003; the death toll was two in California and 41,000 in Iran. Again, Chile's recent earthquake was more powerful than Haiti's, but the death toll was considerably lower. Chile is a member of the OECD club of rich countries; Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Regulation keeps people safe in rich countries. Japan is a perfect case study. The last major earthquake that country experienced hit Kobe in 1995, resulting in 6,000 deaths. But buildings constructed after a 1981 revision of Japan's building codes were far less likely to collapse than older buildings. As the regulation gets better, the death tolls get smaller.

The story is very different in poor countries. The 2010 Haiti quake was closer than the Japan quake to a large population center (Port-au-Prince) but, perhaps more crucially, the Haitians in that population center were mostly living in shoddily constructed buildings. Building regulations and land use codes were mostly disregarded, and rarely enforced. The result was 230,000 people dead. Similarly, many of the 17,000 deaths from the 1999 Marmara earthquake in Turkey were blamed on collapse due to poorly constructed reinforced concrete frames, construction using concrete diluted with too much sand, or construction near fault lines.

Why don't we learn our lesson? Why can't we at least earthquake-proof the most vulnerable major cities of the world? Simply put, it costs too much. Earthquake-resistant engineering solutions are expensive and technically demanding. In Istanbul, the cost of reinforcing 3,600 public structures to make them better able to withstand earthquakes, or retrofitting, was estimated at $1 billion -- approximately $280,000 per structure and a full third of the cost of rebuilding them from scratch. And that's just public buildings -- retrofitting all the private dwellings in the city would undoubtedly have cost far more.

Moreover, it's probably not money well spent -- at least in the developing world. The cost-effectiveness of these solutions is often unfavorable compared with other interventions designed to save lives in risk-prone countries. In part, that's because a lot of people live in areas at risk of an earthquake, but only a few actually witness large earthquakes in any particular year and deaths are concentrated in only a very few locations. It is impossible to predict where serious quakes are going to happen with any accuracy -- seismic risk maps had only put Haiti at moderate risk of a large quake before last January, for example. So earthquake preparedness necessarily involves spending a lot of money on strengthening buildings that may never be put to the test.

By contrast, countries like Haiti witnesses many thousands of deaths from very easily -- and cheaply -- prevented diseases in every month of every year. Choosing one over the other may be unfortunate, but it's hardly irrational. In Istanbul, the cost efficiency of retrofitting public buildings has been estimated at about $2,600 per healthy year of life saved. But in developing countries, millions of people die each year from diseases that can be cured using a simple regime of oral antibiotics, which costs as little as $0.25. More broadly, there are a range of interventions that cost less than $2 per healthy year of life saved in the developing world.

It is particularly tragic when children die when their schools collapse during earthquakes, as was the case in Sichuan, China, in 2008 when some 7,000 students died. In an average year, as many as 2,500 kids worldwide die each year in school collapses. And schools and hospitals should be first in line both for inspection to make sure they meet standard building codes and for resources to strengthen them against earthquakes.

But consider this tragedy: 10 million children under age 5 die each year from other causes before they can even make it to school -- the majority of which can be easily and cheaply prevented. And getting girls into school in the first place is one of the best ways to reduce future child mortality, as well as infant and maternal mortality. If there's $10 million for school construction and the choice is between building more schools (thus admitting more students) that may collapse in a large enough earthquake or building fewer schools that are completely earthquake-proof, you may actually save more lives by making the first choice than the second.

Even if the money is available, it takes more than cash to ensure safe construction. The regulations regarding reinforcement and design have to be enforced. Turkey's Marmara quake was of a magnitude and type accounted for by existing design specifications in the Turkish seismic code -- but it was lack of enforcement that led to deaths. Turkey, in short, wasn't Japan: Municipalities had weak and underfunded engineering and planning departments staffed with unaccredited engineers prone to corruption. In 2006, 40 municipal officials in three towns in Turkey were arrested for taking bribes in return for allowing unlicensed construction. Across a range of countries, construction permitting appears to be a regulatory area particularly prone to corruption.

That means that strict codes that are unenforced not only fail to save lives, but can also carry significant costs on the poor. Because non-code construction is illegal, it provides ongoing opportunities for officials to demand bribes while denying many owners legal title. At the turn of the millennium, as much as half of Turkey's urban population lived in illegal settlements with no rights to sale or transfer. That's a major factor in keeping them poor.

Earthquake deaths aren't "acts of God" -- they are the result of poverty and weak governance. And in poor, weakly governed countries, there are a lot of deaths cheaper and more straightforward to prevent -- from malaria, diarrhea, or measles, for example. In rich countries with well-functioning regulatory systems, building regulations and land use codes specifically responding to earthquake threats have a place. In poor countries where regulation is capriciously enforced, they may even be harmful. If we want to change that grim calculus, we have to learn to treat earthquake deaths as a symptom of misery -- not the cause.


The Optimist

¡Viva la Recesión!

Are bad economies good for democracy?

As the wave of democracy protests continues its spread across the Middle East, it is not just regimes that are flailing. A cherished shibboleth of modernization theory -- that democratic development is the result of economic growth -- is looking a little more waterlogged, too. It wasn't economic growth, after all, that pushed Tunisians, Egyptians, and now Libyans and Yemenis out into the streets. Rather, what those countries share, aside from autocratic regimes, is quite the opposite: Their recent economic performance was all too stagnant.

At least since the work of American sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset half a century ago -- and probably since Karl Marx -- the idea that wealth is the handmaiden of democracy has been a received wisdom of political scientists everywhere. Recently, Harvard University economist Benjamin Friedman has gone a step further in his book The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth to suggest that continuously expanding incomes are a key factor in maintaining inclusive democracies.

But is it actually true that countries that get richer get more democratic? In the developing countries of the Middle East and North Africa, it certainly isn't miracle growth rates that lie behind the stunning recent outburst of fervor for political rights. Average GDP per capita growth in the region has limped along at a little higher than 1 percent a year over the past 30 years (though it picked up some in the last decade). And far from the development of a large, independent middle class of entrepreneurs, the region has seen sclerotic private-sector growth, with business opportunities limited to a privileged, increasingly elderly elite. According to the World Bank, the number of registered firms per 1,000 people in the Middle East and North Africa is less than that in sub-Saharan Africa. The average length of time people in the region have to work before being given a management position is 14 years. In East Asia, it's half that.

The much more plausible story linking economic performance to political change in the region is this one: Governments created expectations in a bulging youth population that they then singularly failed to meet. College enrollment in Egypt has climbed from 14 to 28 percent since 1990, and from 8 to 34 percent in Tunisia. Cairo University alone has around 200,000 students. But while educational opportunities abound, the weak performance of the economy ensures that jobs do not. Unemployment among 15 to 24 year olds in the Middle East and North Africa is the highest of any region in the world, averaging more than 25 percent (in Egypt and Tunisia the numbers are even higher). And discontent with limited opportunities will only be spiked by rising food prices. To the extent that economic performance played a role in recent events, it was by fanning a sense of injustice at hardship -- not by creating a class of bourgeois de Tocqueville fans.

Nor is the Arab world an outlier. While rich countries everywhere are on balance more democratic than poor ones, it does not appear that getting richer necessarily leads to more -- or more stable -- democracy. In a 2009 study, MIT economist Daron Acemoglu and colleagues demonstrated that the apparently strong link between income and measures of democracy around the world at any one point in time disappears when you look at changes in income and rights over time. They conclude that "high levels of income per capita do not promote transitions to democracy from non-democracy, nor do they forestall transitions to non-democracy from democracy."

In fact, if the last century's worth of global evidence suggests anything, it is that countries seeing a decline in incomes move toward democracy considerably faster than countries that have seen income growth. The communist bloc collapsed in the 1980s when growth had slowed, not in the 1950s when growth was rapid. India has grown later and more slowly than China, yet was democratic far earlier and remains more democratic to this day. (Indeed, Gandhi's civil disobedience movement first got off the ground because poor Indians couldn't afford salt.) Newly independent African states moved toward autocracy in the 1960s and 1970s, a period of comparatively successful economic performance. They moved back towards democracy in the 1980s and 1990s, when growth was markedly slower.

To say that recessions speed along the fall of odious regimes is not to say that they are a necessary prerequisite for them; indeed, the overall link between economic shocks and political instability is still subject to debate. Other factors, including urbanization and vastly improved communication -- from satellite TV to Facebook to Twitter -- have clearly played a role, as has the simple fact of the willingness of people in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere to brave violence in the name of democratic reform.

In that regard, the Arab world's uprisings are the latest manifestation of democracy as the new normal, rather than democracy as the natural byproduct of wealth. Nowadays, if you are going out to demonstrate (and you aren't in the employ of an autocratic regime), you are going out to protest in favor of democratic change. Riots between fascists and communists over which totalitarian model should be put in place of the kind that occurred in prewar Germany are, thank goodness, a thing of the past. The percentage of people in favor of the statement "democracy may have its problems, but it's better than any other form of government" in World Values Surveys ranges from a low of 81 percent in the former Soviet Union to 88 percent in the Middle East and 92 percent in the West.

And while economic growth doesn't necessarily pave the way for a democratic transition, people who are agitating for the latter often have a strong interest in encouraging the former, too. The upheavals in the Arab world demonstrate this as well as anything: When a 26-year-old man named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of a Tunisian government building in December, he wasn't demonstrating in favor of democracy -- he was protesting his treatment by local officials and police, which was keeping him from running a fruit stall. The act sparked the protests that brought down President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and then rippled throughout the region. If a democratic Arab world can provide greater opportunities for a well-educated and dynamic young population to compete for jobs and markets on a level playing field, it will create a path out of stagnation -- and turn modernization theory on its head. And that may finally address the complaints of the man who started it all.