Murphy's Law: Bigger Isn't Always Better

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January 22, 2010: NGO's are notoriously unreliable when it comes to casualty statistics. A recent example can be found in the Congo. A Canadian NGO (Human Security Report Project) went to update the loss (how many died) data on the Congo war, and found that the earlier work by American NGO IRC (International Rescue Committee), was fundamentally flawed. The IRC numbers put the death toll in Congo at more than five million. The new research indicates that the actual deaths are less than a third of that.

The twelve year civil war in Congo is being described as the deadliest since World War II, with millions dead. The casualty numbers in the Congo have always been estimates, as the situation in Congo is so chaotic that no one has been able to collect accurate data. The IRC estimates came from a population survey during the first three years of the war, with that Congo death rate compared to that of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. This is the basis of the widely used "5.4 million dead" estimate.

But what has been overlooked is that the death rate from disease and lack of health care was higher in Congo even before the civil war began. This was the result of over three decades of kleptomaniac misrule by dictator Mobuto Sese Seko. This guy was legendary for the degree to which he would steal public money. By the late 1990s, there was practically no infrastructure left in the country, because nothing had been spent on that for many years. Health care was particularly absent, and the death rate was already the highest in Africa, or at least it appeared that way. Mobutu didn't believe in keeping public health or census records either. Things were so bad, that it was no surprise when a rebellion broke out, quickly spread, and turned into a civil war. The depredations of several hundred thousand armed men, and additional deaths among millions of civilians who fled into the bush, probably did create a record high body count. But not 5.4 million. Up to half of that can be blamed on Mobutu and his sticky fingered pals. The rest was largely civilian dead from disease and starvation. The smallest amount came from a direct result of looting and pillaging by the undisciplined gunmen and soldiers. Probably still millions. But blame should be placed where it belongs.

The UN did use the inflated IRC numbers to gain support for the 20,000 man peacekeeper force currently in Congo. Big numbers always open checkbooks and bring forth offers of troops for peacekeeping. But the NGOs tend to pump the numbers, no matter what the situation. For example, the NGO led effort to outlaw landmines put forth outrageously unrealistic (to military experts) numbers for landmine use and casualties. During the Iraq war, NGOs opposed to the war offered such outlandish numbers for Iraqi civilian casualties, that you would think they were working for the terrorists. Captured terrorist communications showed the work of these NGOs was appreciated, and that helped keep the terrorist murder campaign going a little longer. No matter what your religion (or lack of it), when you believe you are in the right, there is a tendency to let the ends justify the means.

 

 


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