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The battle over the cost of war

Today’s wars are less deadly than they have been in decades, according to a European-funded study, "The Shrinking Costs of War," that seeks to challenge the prevailing wisdom suggesting that modern conflict is growing more and more lethal, and concludes that death rates in conflict-wracked countries actually fall during a war. The report, produced by ...

LIONEL HEALING/AFP/Getty Images
LIONEL HEALING/AFP/Getty Images

Today’s wars are less deadly than they have been in decades, according to a European-funded study, "The Shrinking Costs of War," that seeks to challenge the prevailing wisdom suggesting that modern conflict is growing more and more lethal, and concludes that death rates in conflict-wracked countries actually fall during a war.

The report, produced by the Human Security Report Project at Simon Fraser University, also claims that the widely cited estimate of to the most deadly conflict in the world, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the International Rescue Committee (IRC) estimated 5.4 million deaths, is exaggerated. The report’s author, Andrew Mack, said he estimates the number should be under 900,000. is probably below 900,000 though he acknowledges he is uncertain. (See editor’s note.)

"Are we certain our rate is the correct one," Mack told reporters at U.N. headquarters. No. No one can be certain about of the data because the data is so inaccurate."

The study which was funded by Britain, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland argues that the causes of the decline in conflict-related death rates include the decline in high intensity conflicts between states, greater access to medicines, and a dramatic increase in the effectiveness of humanitarian assistance in conflict zones. For instance, he said that immunization programs undertaken in times of peace increase the likelihood of survival during war.

The IRC and the Burnett Institute — who co-authored the Congo mortality study —  stood by their original estimate and faulted Mack for "cherry picking" facts to make his case.

This report draws unjustified conclusions and will leave the world more ignorant and misguided for its release," wrote Dr. Les Roberts, a Columbia University professor who headed the Congo study for IRC.

Editor’s Note: Mack argued that the IRC’s methodology for counting 2.8 million “excess deaths” — those indirect fatalities caused by disease and malnutrition — from the conflict was flawed, leading to an exaggerated estimate. Mack estimates the figure should be under 900,000. The report also claims that IRC’s widely cited estimate that there have been 5.4 million war deaths — which includes excess deaths — in the Democratic Republic of Congo is far too large because core assumptions are wrong. The real figure may be little more than half the IRC’s estimate, but the data is too flawed for anyone to be sure, he claims.

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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