I wrote a couple of days back about my sense of guilt at not covering the plight of Sudanese refugees in Cairo more carefully. Thinking about stories that I – and others – haven’t covered closely enough in Africa, two come to the front of my mind: Darfur and the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. A few links on both subjects:
The Lancet has released a study (free registration required) that estimates that the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo – active from 1996-7 and then 1998-2002 – continues to have a massive effect on mortality in the vast country, causing 38,000 deaths a month, primarily from preventable diseases like dehydration caused by diarrhea. The study estimates that the war in the DRC is responsible for 3.8 million deaths that would not have otherwise occurred, making it the largest humanitarian disaster in the world, and making the “First African World War” the most deadly worldwide since World War II.
The study establishes a baseline for mortality by surveying households, asking how many people died each year and of what causes for each year over the past several years. The years without wars are used as a baseline for the “crude mortality rate” for the nation, and are contrasted to the crude mortality rate in the years where the nation is at war.
This is an estimation method – it’s impossible to count all the people who died in a country like DRC in a given year – it can be highly accurate if careful random sampling takes place… and from my brief glance at the Lancet study, it appears to have been very carefully done. Because it’s a sampling method, not a count, the survey can’t state definitively that 3.8 million people have died in DRC – instead, that’s the middle of a confidence interval of the survey. There’s a 95% confidence interval that DRC’s crude mortality rate was between 1.6 to 2.6 per 1000 per month, as contrasted to sub-Saharan Africa’s crude mortality rate of 1.5 per 1000 per month. In other words, there’s less than a 3% chance that there isn’t a significant affect on mortality from the conflict above the continent-wide baseline, and a strong chance that the effect is a profound one.
The same methodology was used in the Lancet study of civilian deaths in Iraq – Dr. Richard Garfield was an author on both studies and is an expert on the cluster sample survey methodology. The Iraq study, as you may recall, caused some controversy because its 95% confidence interval included a range of Iraqi civilian deaths from 8,000 to 194,000 deaths. That survey tallied results from approximately 900 Iraqi households – the DRC study, which has now been performed four times with similar results, most recently surveyed 19,500 households.
While the Iraqi study found that most deaths were due to violence – specifically collateral damage from US airstrikes – the vast majority of deaths in DRC are due to disease, often complicated by malnutrition. Basically, the war – which destroyed the public health system and displaced hundreds of thousands of people – is a man-made disaster beyond the scale of natural disasters like the Southeast Asian Tsunami or the India/Pakistan Earthquake. While the DRC government is making progress on holding elections and rebuilding some social services, Eastern DRC is vast, desperately poor, extremely hard to navigate (few roads, militias still operating in some areas)… and isn’t getting much attention or aid from the global community. Updating the numbers of dead to this new, stunning figure probably won’t change that much, but it’s an important reminder that one of the most important conflicts of the 20th century is still having tragic impacts.
(If you need a refresher on the war in DRC, BBC’s timeline from late 2004 isn’t bad – the situation is less tense than it was when the timeline was published, though many of the underlying factors are still at play.)
Attention doesn’t always mean intervention, as the conflict in Darfur has demonstrated. Despite sustained campaigning by several groups, countless editorials by smart folks like Nicholas Kristoff and Samantha Power, the Sudanese government and their affiliated thugs have succeeded in chasing Darfurians off their land and into refugee camps.
Fortunately, the attention has helped sponsor relief efforts that are trying hard to prevent the sort of death rates in Darfur that were experienced in the DRC at the height of the conflict. My friend “Sleepless in Sudan” is on leave, getting a well-deserved rest, so I’ll take the opportunity to point you towards Yoo-Mi Lee, a remarkable activist and humanitarian, who has stories and photos of her recent work in Darfur, helping women in refugee camps learn to cook using fuel efficient stoves (critical, since woodgathering is an activity that exposes women to attack – including rape – by Janjawid thugs), distributing food and reporting on the warning signs of attacks by the SLA.
(Who’s the SLA? The Janjawid? Again, the BBC has help for you.)
Yoo-Mi’s photos help make the situation in Darfur more immediate to me, and I find myself wishing that there were dozens of DRC photos I could point to in illustrating this post. One of my big hopes for Global Voices this year is that we’ll be able to get some digital cameras donated by one or more tech companies and get them into the hands of bloggers who can help illustrate some of these critical undercovered stories.