a) 16: b) 35,000: c) 400,000: d) 7.5 million: e) 0
The first figure is the number of fatalities in Darfur for the month of June of this year – the most recent date for which they are available – and is taken from Alex de Waal’s widely-respected Making Sense of Darfur blog. This notes that 12 of the deaths were ‘probably criminal in nature’ while the remaining four were related to the ongoing political crisis. This is the lowest monthly total since the start of the crisis and brings the total number of violent deaths in the Darfur region to perhaps 600 so far this year. For the first nine months of last year, it is estimated that there were around 1,211 deaths of whom around 496 were civilians.
This is way down on the death toll at the height of the conflict in 2003/2004 when the International Criminal Court estimates that around 35,000 people were killed during the government’s counter-insurgency campaign, which is where the second figure comes from.
The third figure is the number of ‘innocent men, women and children [who] have been killed’ in Darfur according to a series of high-profile advertisements and press statements run by the Save Darfur Coalition in 2005 and 2006. This exaggerates the number of violent deaths in Darfur by more than ten-fold. The adverts were criticised by the Advertising Standards Association and the coalition now use the figure 300,000 instead. This is a UN guesstimate at the total number of people who have died both from the direct and indirect effects of the conflict. It is based on the figure used by the main aid agencies during fund-raising appeals in 2005 – when they said that 200,000 lives had been lost – and a comment by a UN official that this figure could now be half as high again. From my extremely limited experience of counting displaced people and/or dead bodies during refugee crises, I would say that the 200,000 figure was about right when the agencies were using it. This was half the number claimed by the coalition at the time and the wording of their adverts – which implied the deaths were a result of physical acts of violence was clearly misleading.
Although the 400,000 figure really is not credible at any level – and not even the coalition uses it any more – it has been embedded in the minds of many commentators on the crisis. For example, it was cited in a Special Report on the Arab world by the usually scrupulous Economist a couple of weeks ago, which also claimed that just over 100,000 people had been killed in Iraq over the same time period.
The fourth figure is the number of dollars that the Save Darfur coalition raised in funds in 2008 and the final figure is the amount that they have spent in Darfur providing aid to the suffering people there.
Now I know that the coalition makes clear that it is an advocacy and not an aid organisation. I also know that there are political reasons why some people want to overstate the death toll in Darfur and under-state it in Iraq. But there is something else even more basic about those figures which I find problematic.
My book, The Thin Blue Line, is about some of the problems currently confronting the ‘humanitarian aid industry’ and the inter-relationship politics, human rights and international interventions. Crudely put, the ‘business’ of humanitarian aid is to alert (mainly western) public opinion about crises, persuade them to give money to organisations seeking to alleviate the suffering and then deliver this in the form of aid. The more dramatic you can make the crisis appear, the more effective your fundraising efforts are likely to be. But if you screw up the delivery element, people are less likely to trust you with their money in the future. That is the basic business model and I am rather sceptical about notions such as ‘humanitarian accountability’ and ‘rights-based programming’ which are currently much in vogue.
Like all industries, the humanitarian aid business is a competitive one. Organisations vie for visibility during deliveries and try to make their fund-raising appeals as dramatic and conscience-stirring as possible. The fact that the business is connected to the alleviation of suffering locates us within a certain moral framework, however, and aid workers spend a large amount of time agonizing over whether we are actually helping people as much as we could and how we could do things better. I do not see that as incompatible with a business model and one of my more recent projects was to participate in a study looking at what we can learn from the private sector when it comes to encouraging innovation in the humanitarian field.
But it is the disconnection from an actual humanitarian objective that I find objectionable in the efforts of the Save Darfur coalition. Perhaps some of those involved are genuinely altruistic and perhaps what they have done was inadvertent, but it is difficult to regard the outcome of what they have created as anything but immoral.
In his book, Saviours and Survivors, Professor Mahmood Mamdani, notes that the coalition, which he says has an annual budget of approximately $14 million, grew from a movement of college students into what is essentially an advertising campaign. He claims that for a short period, the president of the ad agency that the coalition hired also served as its director, which sounds like an incredible conflict of interest.
Presumably large numbers of people have made donations to the coalition under the impression that this would be used to help the people of Darfur, money which they may otherwise have donated to other agencies who actually have programs in the region. The aid agencies are hampered by the fact that they have to spend some of the money that they raise actually helping people and, since they have (or rather had) staff on the ground they have to base their messages on the complex and nuanced reality that actually exists.
Unencumbered by such restrictions, for the last five years the Save Darfur coalition has been pumping out a message about an ongoing genocide which is essentially untrue. By massively inflating the real death toll and offering what seems to be the most ‘common sense’ solution – send in western troops – it has put all the other humanitarian agencies and human rights groups at a massive disadvantage when it came to fundraising and ensured that it is its own message that has dominated the debate. It is accountable to no one, it helps no one and it has created a self-perpetuating circle, which in any other industry could get its organisers prosecuted for fraud.
I will be blogging a bit more about more general humanitarian topics over the next week or so and will introduce myself properly in the next few days, but I thought that I would flag this issue up now so that we can discuss it as we go along.