Thursday, September 13, 2007

Tallying Death in Darfur

Darfur is regularly called the “world’s worst humanitarian disaster.” Google returns 13,100 hits for a search of the phrase with “Darfur”; pairing it with "Iraq," a much larger killing field, yields only 544 results.

As a politically useful bloodbath which can be used to demonize Arabs and Muslims, exaggerated fatality estimates in Darfur are generally not subjected to serious scrutiny. In contrast, the most serious mortality estimates for Iraq, in particular the 2006 Lancet study, are disparaged and far lower estimates are regularly circulated in the commercial press.

A recent op-ed in the New York Times by Time Magazine's Africa writer Sam Dealey regarding a ruling of the British Advertising Standards Authority broke the pattern. The case concerned ads placed by the Save Darfur Coalition in Britain and the United States in 2006 claiming that 400,000 innocent people had been killed in Darfur.

The subsequent ruling ordered Save Darfur to alter the ads to present the 400,000 figure as opinion rather than fact and “concluded that there was a division of informed opinion about the accuracy of the figure contained in the ad and it should not have been presented in such a definitive way.”

Death toll estimates as high as 400,000 are often cited (though a much lower figure of 200,000 is most common; there is rarely any attempt to explain the discrepancy). As early as April 2006, Eric Reeves ventured that excess mortality in Darfur “significantly exceeds 450,000.”

As the Times piece points out, there is considerable justification for skepticism of the higher estimates. Reviewing a Government Accounting Office study that convened a panel of experts to review six prominent estimates, Dealey concludes that the current death toll is probably around 200,000, which, as he notes, is “just half of what Save Darfur claimed a year ago in its ad and still claims on its Web site.” A September 2006 article in the prestigious journal Science provided a range of 170,000-255,000 total deaths (including natural causes; counting only deaths attributable to the violence would yield a somewhat lower figure).

Alex de Waal, a respected expert on the region, wrote of the numbers controversy, “there is no certainty in these figures. The reality could be different. But the pattern is both clear and familiar, and the best guess is approximately 200,000 excess deaths, plus or minus.”

The debate is not academic. Dealey points out:
Inaccurate data can also lead to prescriptive blunders. During the worst period of violence, for example, the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disaster estimated that nearly 70 percent of Darfur’s excess deaths were due not to violence but to disease and malnutrition. This suggests that policy makers should look for ways to bolster and protect relief groups — by continuing to demand that the Sudanese government not hamper the delivery of aid, to be sure, but also by putting vigorous public pressure, so far lacking, on the dozen rebel groups that routinely raid convoys.
As de Waal observes, “In Darfur, the figures have become more politicized than any in recent history.” Inflating the death toll in Darfur does not further the cause of those seeking an end to the crisis but rather brings discredit to the movement. Moreover, it provides further illustration of the ease with which Darfur activists draw favorable attention and support while activists with causes of no utility to establishment interests or, worse, that are opposed to those interests are by turns ignored and ridiculed.