Exterminate the brutes! Report claims Congo war toll greatly exaggerated

A new report released by the Human Security Report Project has questioned the widely accepted – and widely quoted – death toll attributed to the endless war(s) in the Congo.

According to the report, the common estimate of 5.4 million deaths due to war since 1998 is based on unsound methodology and greatly exaggerated. The AFP reports that

The 2010 Human Security Report, released Wednesday at the United Nations in New York, challenged the research used to arrive at the figure, saying “estimates of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s war death toll are at least twice as high as they should be.”

New report says it's not as bad as it looks (courtesy of Lynsey Addario, The New York Times)

The widely used figure was calculated from a series of five surveys by the International Rescue Committee, along with assistance from the Burnet Institute of Australia in two of the surveys. The IRC, founded in 1933, is one of the world’s most respected relief agencies. It provides, according to its mission statement, “emergency relief, rehabilitation, protection of human rights, post-conflict development, resettlement services and advocacy for those uprooted or affected by violent conflict and oppression.”

Among its other findings, the new report faults the first two surveys conducted by the IRC, which “were not done in a randomly-selected area on a representative population, as is standard in statistical research,” according to the AFP. The surveys, which concentrated on the densely populated and war-affected regions of eastern Congo, inflated the death toll by focusing on the country’s most conflict-ridden regions. (Which sort of falsely implies that western Congo is a land of milk and honey.)

Populations fleeing violence in eastern Congo (courtesy of Lynsey Addario, NYT)

The meat-and-potatoes portion of this report, of course, boils down to the amount of humanitarian aid pouring into the Congo. The Washington Post quotes an IRC researcher, writing in 2006, who links the figures provided by his group to the dramatic increase in foreign aid to Congo in the past decade.

“Following the release of the 2000 survey results, total humanitarian aid increased by over 500 percent between 2000 and 2001. The United States’ contribution alone increased by a factor of almost 26. It is probably fair to assert that the mortality data played a significant role in increasing international assistance,” one of IRC’s key researchers, Richard Brennan, wrote in a 2006 journal article.

Andrew Mack, director of the Human Security Report Project, said the dispute over the actual figure would put billions of dollars in aid at risk by “discrediting population health surveys as a whole.”

“Policy makers need to have hard data,” he told AFP. “Anything that questions the credibility of these surveys is a bad thing.”

What's at stake in the Congo war

The IRC defended its findings, responding in a statement that “5.4 million is our best estimate based on established methodology and conservative assumptions, but the real figure could be as low as 3 million or as high as 7.6 million.”

The fuzziness of the figures is not accidental. Most of the controversy surrounds the “excess” death toll – those deaths caused by disease, lack of food and medicine, and malnutrition, often in populations fleeing the violence – which, in a country as vast, undeveloped, and chaotic as the Congo, is almost impossible to calculate. As one scholar observed, the “normal” mortality rate attributed to pre-war Congo, based on the average for sub-Saharan Africa, ignores what was most likely a higher rate.

“In Congo, people were already dying in higher numbers than in the rest of Africa, even before the war. And they continued to die in higher numbers after the war,” said professor emeritus Joshua Goldstein of American University’s School of International Service, American University, [in the Post report].

Disease, malnutrition, and little access to health care are part of the excess death toll (courtesy of Lynsey Addario, NYT)

The report questions whether this baby would have been able to survive, even without the war's consequences (courtesy of Lynsey Addario, NYT)

A cholera patient who was forced by fighting to flee his home (courtesy of Lynsey Addario, NYT)

As the Post observes, “the Congo conflict has been dubbed the world’s deadliest since World War II,” and the death toll figure has been “used worldwide to bolster political support for a massive UN peacekeeping mission and humanitarian aid in the heart of Africa” (AFP). The importance of getting the figures right, of course, is indisputable. But this begs the question: would “only” 2.8 million deaths have been less a cause for action?

Congolese villagers are happy to give MONUC soldiers a helpful push...right out of the fucking country (courtesy of Jean-Marc Bouju, AP)

You can access the full report here.

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