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Review of Congo war halves death toll

 FILE- In this Monday June 23, 2003 file photo, a French special forces soldier crouches in the grass on a reconnaissance patrol outside Bunia in the ...
 FILE - In this March 29, 2001 file photo, Congolese push start a truck loaded with Uruguayan United Nations troops going to their barracks upon their...
 FILE - In this Aug. 13, 2000 file photo, rebels of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo, in red berets, inspect some of the 63 government prisone...

Congo Deadliest Conflict

FILE- In this Monday June 23, 2003 file photo, a French special forces soldier crouches in the grass on a reconnaissance patrol outside Bunia in the ...

Congo Deadliest Conflict

FILE - In this March 29, 2001 file photo, Congolese push start a truck loaded with Uruguayan United Nations troops going to their barracks upon their...

Congo Deadliest Conflict

FILE - In this Aug. 13, 2000 file photo, rebels of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo, in red berets, inspect some of the 63 government prisone...

The Congo conflict has been dubbed the world's deadliest since World War II, causing 5.4 million deaths, in a widely cited study. But a research group is challenging those figures, saying proper survey techniques would cut the number in half.
The figure of 5.4 million deaths since 1998 has become the default number used by the news media since it was publicized by the International Rescue Committee, a private relief agency.
The staggering death toll is five to 10 times higher than the Rwandan genocide, and jolted the U.S. and U.N. into elevating the Congo crisis to the top of their agenda.
The U.N. Security Council cited IRC's figures in the process of deciding to ramp up a peacekeeping force for Congo, which has now grown to over 20,000 troops, the U.N.'s biggest peacekeeping operation.
"Following the release of the 2000 survey results, total humanitarian aid increased by over 500 percent between 2000 and 2001. The United States' contribution alone increased by a factor of almost 26," one of IRC's key researchers, Richard Brennan, wrote in a 2006 journal article.
But a new review of the International Rescue Committee's methods released Wednesday says the statistics themselves are questionable, "dramatically elevating the 'excess' death toll," according to a periodic report on conflict and casualty trends issued by the Human Security Report Project at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada.
The Human Security Report says that when it re-calculated the figures using some of the IRC's own data, it found that the probable death toll _ mostly "excess deaths" caused by disease, lack of food and medicine, and malnutrition _ was less than half of IRC's figure of 5.4 million.
Congo has been mired in conflict since Rwanda's 1994 genocide spilled war across the border and ethnic Rwandan Hutu militias sought refuge in Congo. Rwanda has invaded twice to eradicate the militias, toppling dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in the process. Fighting from 1998-2002 drew in half a dozen African armies and split the vast nation into rival fiefdoms.
Andrew Mack, who formerly was the director of strategic planning for U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and now is director of the Human Security Report Project, told the AP that a review of the IRC's survey methods and statistical assumptions shows errors.
Independent statisticians, demographers and epidemiologists interviewed by AP also question many of the IRC's methods.
The IRC stands by its research, pointing out that it has been transparent about field sampling problems and assumptions about baseline mortality rates. IRC said in a written rebuttal that "5.4 million is our best estimate based on established methodology and conservative assumptions, but the real figure could be as low as 3 million or as high as 7.6 million."
The Human Security Report released Wednesday found two major problems:
_Congo, one of Africa's most underdeveloped nations, had no reliable prewar statistics on which to base a "normal" mortality rate. The IRC opted to use the average mortality rate of all sub-Saharan countries as the baseline, a figure of 1.5 deaths per thousand per month.
If the "normal" baseline death rate is set lower, a larger proportion of deaths would be attributed to the war and its consequences, and vice versa.
"In Congo, people were already dying in higher numbers than in the rest of Africa, even before the war. And they continued to die in higher numbers after the war," said Prof. Joshua Goldstein of American University's School of International Service. He is writing a chapter on Congo for his next book.
Mack said a more appropriate mortality baseline is 2.0 deaths per 1,000 people, based on the deaths in the western part of the country away from the war zone.
When the Human Security Report re-ran the calculations for the period from April 2001 to April 2007, it found the excess death toll for those years dropped by about 2 million, to less than 900,000. "And that's a huge decline," Mack said.
"No rational person could believe in the 5.4 million figure after reading the Human Security Report," said Michael Spagat, an economics professor at Royal Holloway College, University of London, who has also criticized Iraqi mortality figures published by The Lancet medical journal as overblown.
"If the IRC is right, then Mobutu managed to get the health of his people at least up into the mainstream for the sub-Saharan African nations. This would seem pretty unlikely, wouldn't it?" Spagat said.
The International Rescue Committee, after studying Mack's review, sent the AP a detailed statement standing by its original research. It said death rates in western Congo were too high to use as a baseline due to spill-over effects of the war in the east, so that is why it used the lower baseline figure based on an average of sub-Saharan nations. It said that rate was acceptably close to the 1984 Congo census results that found a 1.3 per 1,000 monthly death rate, and defended its use of 1.5/1,000 deaths monthly as "conservative."
_The Human Security Report also rejected the interview-based sampling which was done in dangerous eastern Congo regions, arguing that the areas were not representative of the entire country. HSR completely discounts the IRC's research from those two surveys.
Brennan, one of the lead IRC researchers who now works for a different agency in Liberia helping rebuild that country's health service, told the AP that the International Rescue Committee had legitimate safety problems in selecting areas to be surveyed.
"We've acknowledged from Day One, in our first report, that the science wasn't pure, that extrapolations had to be made," Brennan said. "Some of the extrapolations are arguable," he said, but he insisted that "We erred very much on the conservative side," and any sampling problems were "reasonable and did not invalidate our findings."
Other experts were less certain.
"One has to be very careful when extrapolating to areas that one has not surveyed. The early IRC surveys did this and thus are more problematic than the later IRC surveys," Paul Spiegel, a senior epidemiologist for the U.N. High Commissioner For Refugees, told the AP.
"I believe the problem is indeed the baseline," said Olivier Degomme, co-author of a 2007 Congo mortality study at the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters in Brussels, Belgium, which collaborates with the World Health Organization. "It is likely that the baseline used by IRC is too low, which would result in an overestimation of the death toll."
Experts feel large-scale research of this type should be shared by multiple agencies and relief organizations.
"I think we should strengthen the capacity of these non-governmental organizations to do studies well and maybe have consortiums do them, to minimize criticisms both of technical soundness or hidden agendas," said Debarati Guha Sapir, director of the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters in Brussels.
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Associated Press writer Todd Pitman in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.
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On the Web:
http://www.humansecurityreport.info/
http://www.theirc.org/special-reports/special-report-congo-x


Updated : 2021-07-26 11:32 GMT+08:00