Grave Inflation

A new report on the Haiti earthquake reminds again that, for aid groups, more casualties means more funding.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI - JANUARY 11: A man walks by crosses set up as a memorial in memory of the tens of thousands killed and buried in the mass grave at Titanyen on January 11, 2011 on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The crosses were setup to represent the people buried at the site after the January 12, 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 200,000. (Photo by Allison Shelley/Getty Images)

I once met a High Court judge in London who complained that as the criminals before him seemed to commit more and more brutal acts, he was having increasing difficulty knowing how to describe his outrage when it came time to sentence them. “What am I supposed to do?” he asked. “If I were being honest, I would have to say something along the lines of ‘This is the most horrific offense that I have encountered since, well, last Tuesday.’ Obviously, I can’t do that. But sometimes mustering the requisite hyperbole that the case before me is uniquely horrible can be a bit difficult.”

Humanitarian relief workers must often feel the same way. At least, one hopes they do. Here is Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), speaking in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Jan. 12, 2010. “This is a historic disaster,” she said. “We have never been confronted with such a disaster in the U.N. memory. It is like no other.”

The problem with such over-the-top rhetoric is that it requires a willful suspension of disbelief and no small degree of historical amnesia. Was the Haitian earthquake really a greater challenge and a deeper tragedy than the refugee emergency in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide or the 1990s famines in North Korea — both of which involved the relief arms of the United Nations? Perhaps a moral philosopher could adjudicate the hierarchy of these horrors, but surely it is above the pay grade of an international civil servant like Byrs or, for that matter, a writer like me.

Taken individually, such assertions are bad enough. Worse still is that in almost every natural disaster, famine, relief emergency, or forced movement of people, there is always an aid worker, journalist, U.N. official, or some political figure to say that what is taking place in country A, B, or C, is the worst example of its kind that the world has yet known. The world “biblical” is usually a dead giveaway (at least when employed metaphorically rather than, as fundamentalist Christians sometimes do, in the literal sense of God’s wrath made manifest). It was used by British journalist Michael Buerk when he reported on the Ethiopian famine in 1984, and it was used by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to describe Port-au-Prince in 2010, and any number of times in between.

But even hyperbole must be undergirded by something — and in the world of what are conventionally, if somewhat misleadingly called humanitarian emergencies, it is almost always the brute number of people killed, shelters destroyed, services unavailable, and livelihoods ended. That was certainly the case in Haiti, where the earthquake was estimated to have killed somewhere between 200,000 (the lowest NGO estimate) and 318,000 people (the official Haitian government figure) and left 1.5 million people homeless, of whom, in the spring of 2011, some 680,000 were still said to be living in resettlement camps.

Perhaps this is why last month’s leaking of a report prepared by business and development consultancy LTL Strategies that questions all these figures — instead estimating a death toll of somewhere between 46,000 and 85,000, an initial displacement of 895,000, and a population still living in camps of 375,000 — has caused such consternation in official Washington, not to mention on the part of many mainline relief NGOs working in Haiti today, as well as the Haitian government. Ironically, the report had been commissioned by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), though for now at least the agency is not willing to vouch for it. This has led Timothy T. Schwartz, the report’s principal author, to write on his blog of the U.S. government’s “effort to discredit a survey that it commissioned and for which it reviewed and approved the methodology.”

Schwartz is a Haiti expert and longtime critic of the NGOs — particularly of the Christian charities, a majority of which are from the United States — that have long run a network of schools and orphanages in the country. Given the controversial character of Schwartz’s work, it is very much to USAID’s credit that it was willing to fund his research, even if the agency is now running away from his report like a scalded cat. Schwartz has said repeatedly and restated on his blog that whatever the true figures, the earthquake was a great tragedy. “Intellectually,” he wrote, “I really don’t care how many people got killed…. [I]n terms of the tragedy, less is better.”

This would seem unarguable. And yet the consternation over the report in Washington and Port-au-Prince is profound. The reason for this is fear. In an era of scarce resources in which Barack Obama’s administration is under harsh pressure from a Congress that is highly skeptical of foreign aid, the discovery that the resources committed to Haitian relief may not have been insufficient — as many NGO representatives have been saying for at least a year — but instead have been excessive is a dangerous game.

Anyone familiar with the debate on Capitol Hill these days will know that such fears are more than warranted, above all because it plays into the corrupt-locals-exploiting-generous-Americans meme that is never far from the surface in official Washington. Whether that is a good enough reason to reject Schwartz’s conclusions is another question entirely. And in reality, even if Schwartz is off by a considerable extent, there is little chance that the initial estimates of the dead and displaced in Port-au-Prince are any more accurate than initial estimates of these figures in any of the other major natural disasters of the past half-century.

Even today, we only have a fairly approximate idea of how many people died in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, while it is virtually certain that the initial casualty estimates for those killed in Burma when Cyclone Nargis struck in 2008 were wildly overstated. In that instance, the supposed indifference of the Burmese dictatorship to the plight of its own citizens and the urgent need for relief supplies led Bernard Kouchner, then France’s foreign minister, to propose that the U.N. Security Council invoke its new “responsibility to protect” doctrine to authorize delivery of relief supplies — whether or not the authorities in Burma gave their assent — which was to say, by force if necessary.

In most cases, death-toll uncertainty arises not because the truth is being concealed but rather because getting accurate figures in countries without competent bureaucracies is very difficult. (North Korea is a glaring exception: If we do not know how many people have died of starvation there, it is because Pyongyang does not want the death toll known.) As Rony Brauman, former president of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), put it, at least in the initial stages of a disaster, what NGOs and U.N. agencies think the figures are is almost always guesswork to one degree or another.

The problem is that U.N. agencies, USAID, its European counterparts (90 percent of relief funding still comes from the OECD countries), and NGOs almost all think that to get attention for a given crisis, they must use apocalyptic language and err on the side of overestimating the death, damage, and displacement that has been caused. To do anything else is to risk not getting the minimum help needed. Call it a professional deformation, or one of the many unfortunate knock-on consequences of the 24-hour news cycle in which events bob to the surface only to be submerged by other, still more lurid happenings. If the public presentation of relief emergencies were an economy, it would be one wracked by galloping inflation.

Of course it is understandable that NGOs and U.N. agencies feel that they must exaggerate. But each time they do, they up the rhetorical ante that much more. What will happen when the next earthquake devastates a city and the OCHA is called upon to act and mobilize resources? Will Byrs or one of her successors have to claim an even more historic, more unprecedented disaster in order to get the world’s attention? In the name of mobilizing compassion, we are raising the bar to impossible heights. At this rate, the 46,000 to 85,000 Haitians Schwartz estimates to have died in the earthquake will seem too small a number to really command the attention of donors and the general public in the developed world. Perhaps this has already happened. Perhaps this is why Schwartz’s report has sown such panic within the U.S. government. If so, we really are damned.

David Rieff is the author, most recently, of "In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies." Twitter: @davidrieff

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