Death Tolls’R’Us

January 21, 2010

Remember the time when newspaper reports about Darfur were full of mortality estimates in the region of 400,000 killed? Well, those estimates – which are generally now seen to have been massively exaggerated – were derived from research done by the International Rescue Committee (not affiliated with the Tracy family, but closely linked to Henry Kissinger, as it happens.)

Well, UN research has been pouring cold water on some more of the IRC’s “research” this time on the Democratic Republic of Congo where, the aid agency has claimed, some 5.4 million people have died purely due to war in the past decade. The UN’s 2010 Human Security Report released this week disputes this.

As one of the report’s authors Andrew Mack put it, “the IRC assumed the DRC’s mortality rate before the war was the same as the average rate in sub-Saharan Africa — but in fact conditions in the DRC were far worse than the regional average even before the war.” By factoring in a more accurate mortality rate, Mack  came up with a figure of 900,000 people killed by war, compared with the 2.8 million postulated by the IRC. Moreover, “the first two of the IRC surveys [out of five] were not done in a randomly-selected area on a representative population, as is standard in statistical research.”

These kind of methods are used to shore up support for military intervention, sanctions regimes and to divert attention from the underlying economic system which sucks minerals and other resources from countries like the DRC. The emphasis on peacekeeping, between tribal forces and proxies of rival nations, supports narratives of primordial conflicts – with blue hats forced to stand between eternal enemies like Hutus and Tutsis. All the while, brutal mineral extraction has continued and the UN force itself has been embroiled in gem smuggling and sex abuse scandals.

In the most recent instance of brutality, a report from a UN radio station related how six people, five children among them, were killed in the collapse of an abandoned tin mine in the DRC. This follows the death of six more people at a copper mine in the south east of the country. Illegal or artisanal mining is both tolerated and necessary for local people, as mines which have been idled by corporations and the government still hold valuable resources. It is also dangerous, yet lucrative for the middle men who sell the produce on to dealers and, eventually, foreign corporations. Corporate mining, using mechanised methods, on the other hand, remains dangerous, and yet displaces small miners from the pits, leaving them with nothing. Corruption on the part of government and the mining firms then sees any tax revenues evaporate.

The IRC’s cartoonish approach to disaster relief and peacekeeping is a hindrance to solving the problems of places like Darfur and the DRC. In the first instance, inflated death tolls contributed to the portrayal of Sudan’s government as “genocidal” and made a negotiated peace harder to achieve. In the second, the sheer scale of the estimates tended to confirm images of the DRC as the “heart of darkness” and helpless – rather than a politically and economically generated crisis.

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