The Numbers Game

The Numbers Game

Can David Rieff ("Millions May Die … Or Not," September/October 2011) really be serious in accusing international aid agencies — and myself — of using hyperbole to get donor-fatigued countries to loosen their purse strings and come to the assistance of not-really-so-badly-off people? Rieff goes even further, suggesting that some (the Hutus who fled the massacre in Rwanda in 1994, for instance) might not be worthy of any assistance at all. I’m not so sure.

One thing I do know: In January 2010, when I tried to convey the magnitude of the destruction wrought by the Haiti earthquake before a crowd of journalists at the United Nations in Geneva, I was myself one of the walking wounded, at least emotionally. This was not only an earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of people, left more than a million homeless, and just about completely wiped out that country’s infrastructure. It also killed 102 U.N. staff — more than any other single event in history — including many of my friends and colleagues.

I was hearing the nightmarish stories directly relayed to me by friends who had survived, including one of a colleague who was found wandering, shoeless and disoriented, days after the quake, searching for his family only to find that his children had been crushed to death under the rubble. So no, I don’t think my statement at the time that "This is a historic disaster. We have never been confronted with such a disaster in the U.N. memory. It is like no other" was hyperbole, as Rieff suggests. It was a cri de coeur.

Donor fatigue is something we have to combat every day and something I can understand. What I cannot understand are the people who think we should simply give up trying to convey the real extent and impact of the many humanitarian disasters and emergencies all over the world.

U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Geneva, Switzerland

David Rieff replies:

Can Elisabeth Byrs be serious? As she knows perfectly well, but disingenuously fails to acknowledge, the view that aid should have been withdrawn from the camps in eastern Congo because they were controlled by the same groups that had orchestrated and carried out the Rwandan genocide is hardly controversial — except, it seems, at the U.N. Many mainline relief NGOs withdrew from the camps for this reason.

As for Haiti, while I can sympathize with Byrs’s shock and sense of loss over what happened in Haiti, the truth — are we still interested in the truth or only in mobilizing people? — is just as I stated it: It may have been the worst disaster in history for the U.N., but this is not the message Byrs was understood by her listeners as conveying. To the contrary, she was understood to be speaking of the people of Haiti.

I entirely agree with her when she says that it is essential that the real extent and impact of humanitarian disasters around the world be conveyed. My point is that by indulging in hyperbole — and the U.N.’s public statements on the current Somali famine show that no lessons have been learned in this regard — U.N. and NGO officials do a disservice to the truth and, by so doing, actually foment the increasing cynicism and disbelief with which their statements are now greeted.