Darfur: Building Numbers out of Sand

Two days ago we discussed the claim of 300,000 excess deaths caused by the war in Darfur.  I suggested that a possible source for the 300,000 figure is this study.

But there is another possibility.

A quick google of Darfur 300,000 leads us to a UN official pulling this number out of his …errr….armpit:

John Holmes, the undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, told a security council meeting yesterday that the previous number of 200,000 dead in fighting between rebel groups, some backed by the Khartoum government, was last tallied in 2006.

“That figure must be much higher now, perhaps half as much again,” Holmes said to the council. Answering questions from reporters, he later qualified the estimated number, by admitting the death toll of 300,000 “is not a very scientifically based figure” because there have been no new mortality studies in Darfur, but “it’s a reasonable extrapolation”.

OK, but Holmes was embellishing on a firm figure of 200,000, right?   Not really. He’s actually building on top of a sand castle sculpted by his UN colleague Jan Egeland:

It has been at least 10,000 … on average, of preventable deaths since the emergency became a big emergency, which was towards the end of 2003,” Egeland said….

“If you say for the last 18 months, 10,000 a month, that’s 180,000,” Egeland said.

“It could be just as well more than 200,000 but I think 10,000 a month … is a reasonable figure”

Egeland’s 10,000 per month comes from a WHO estimate that covers only seven months.  Egeland just goes ahead and applies this number to 18 months, rounds up to 200,000 and then speculates that the real number could be more than that.

It is bad practice, to say the least, to apply the results of surveys taken at one time and place to other times and places not surveyed. What Egeland does is sort of like saying that Massachusetts leans Democrat in my survey so it’s safe to say that Texas must also lean Democrat, possibly more so than Massachusetts.  I would do better to either gather data on Texas or just shut up about it.

The WHO study that offered the 10,000 figure is a bit of a mixed bag.  On the one hand 10,000 per month is put forward as a maximum, not a minimum as Egeland claims.  On the other hand, the estimate applies only to camps for internally displaced people so the number for the whole country could ….well it could be all sorts of things, either bigger or smaller than 10,000.

My point here is not really about Darfur.  We actually have a decent starting point for understanding the Darfur death toll, if we just ignore all the UN arm flapping.

My real point is twofold:

  1. This episode shows how readily people conjure up war death figures out of thin air.
  2. Each step along the way tends to obscure the earlier steps.  This means that it can take considerable effort to trace numbers back to their sources and realize just how dubious they are.

Unfortunately, the moral of the story is that you need to be suspicious of these sorts of numbers and avoid taking anything very seriously without at least tracing it back to its source.

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