The simple answer to the question of how many people died in Congo’s civil war is “too many”.
Trying to get a realistic figure is fraught with difficulties and a new report suggests that a widely used estimate of 5.4 million dead – potentially making Congo the deadliest conflict since World War Two – is hugely inaccurate and that the loss of life may be less than half that.
The aid group that came up with the original estimate unsurprisingly says the new report is wrong.
The problem is the way estimates are reached.
One way is to do a body count, but that is next to impossible in a country like the Democratic Republic of Congo. Very few of the victims are shot, blown up or otherwise die as a result of violence. Most succumb to disease or malnutrition. But then who died as a result of the war and who would have died anyway in a country where survival is normally so tough?
That is where the other methodology comes in. It is based on using the difference between the rate at which people were dying before the war and the mortality rate once it has started. It should indicate the number of those who have died as both a direct and indirect result of the war. This sort of calculation led to the figure of 5.4 million dead in Congo.
The problem is that if you get the wrong mortality rates, even by a small margin, the estimate can be way off. That is what the Human Security Report Project says happened with the Congo figures. The International Rescue Committee stands by its estimate.
Basing estimates on mortality rates can also have odd consequences – for instance mortality rates for those being helped by aid agencies can fall to below pre-war levels in places where living conditions were already very poor – meaning that not only could the death toll fall over time but in a sense more people might be alive as a result of a war.
The Congo figures have been nowhere near as controversial as calculations for Iraq or Darfur, but once figures are repeated often enough they tend to become established and treated almost as fact.
The United Nations estimate for the Darfur death toll of 300,000 is another example of how figures can enter common usage. It originally came from John Holmes, U.N. under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, in April 2008.
“A study in 2006 suggested that 200,000 had lost their lives from the combined effects of the conflict. That figure must be much higher now, perhaps half as much again,” Holmes said, although he later described it as a “reasonable extrapolation”.
But because mortality rates were used in the 2006 study, the figure didn’t have to be much higher. It might even have been lower in some areas because of the immense efforts of humanitarian workers in reducing mortality rates for the millions of displaced.
While potentially wrong, such figures could have a use in drawing the eyes of the world to tragedies and finding the resources needed to end them. The question is whether, when challenged, they undermine the credibility of those who produce them? Then again, does it matter if they are wrong? Are those who challenge them at risk of harming efforts to save lives?