Wednesday, January 7, 2009

New Mortality Study Dramatically Reduces Estimates of War Toll

Two professional demographers say that the number of dead from the wars in the DRC has been radically overstated. Andre Lambert and Louis Lohlé-Tart, who worked on the census financed by the European Commission to determine the DRC's population prior to the 2005-2006 elections, estimate that less than 200,000 people have died in the DRC as a result of the wars that began in 1998. That number stands in sharp contrast to the figures derived by the International Rescue Committee, whose most recent survey, in January 2008, concluded that 5.4 million people have died and that an additional 45,000 continue to perish each month.

Link to the Lambert-Lohle-Tart (L-LT) study is here, and to the IRC, here.

The two studies use completely different methodologies. The IRC conducted enormous nationwide surveys asking individual heads of households if anyone in their family had recently passed away. They used impressive technical devices to insure that they picked the households randomly but in proportion to regional population density. And then they multiplied the figures out, and attributed to the war the number of deaths in excess of the pre-war, baseline mortality figure.

The L-LT study compares the population census taken for the 2005 and 2006 elections to earlier censuses and population counts and finds that roughly 7.7 million people died in Congo between 1998 and 2004. They argue that if four million of those deaths are attributable to the war (as the IRC estimated at that time), then the rest of the population must have had a life expectancy in the neighborhood of 60 years--whereas in fact their life expectancy was only 42 years. They suggest that the excess mortality one sees in the DRC began in the 1970s and is attributable to the decline of the Mobutuist state rather than to the wars.

My impression is that the L-LT people are responsible professionals. However, I am working off a press account of the L-LT study that does not include the tables and graphs referred to in the text. This makes the report a bit hard to understand at times. Nor do L-LT suggest how the IRC may have gotten it so wrong. You'd want to see L-LT offer some hypotheses for why the IRC's methodology was faulty. Instead they somewhat troublingly suggest that the IRC's figures are a "fantasy" or a "profitable lie." (My translation: "leurs fantasmes ou … à leurs mensonges rentables.") And elsewhere, they ask whether the figure serves the interests of some country or hidden interest or organization. ("si elle sert les intérêts de pays, d’organisations ou d’autres puissances occultes.")

I have myself wondered about two possible sources of inaccuracy in the IRC's methodology. The first is that the IRC may have taken respondents at their word, and that some respondents may have been tempted to exaggerate their misfortune in the hope of eliciting charity. The other thing I've wondered about is the accuracy of the baseline mortality figure used to calculate the "excess mortality" attributed to the war. What happens if you nudge that figure up or down? Would small changes in the assumptions lead to significant differences in the outcomes? That said, the IRC appeared to me to be more than cognizant of these concerns in their various reports, and to have verified their results using various demographic cross-checks.

This discussion obviously gets very technical very quickly, and while it's not quantum physics, it's beyond my capacity to referee. I will follow up, though, because the issues it raises are obviously of extreme importance.

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