A Confession

OK, I’ve been found out. I don’t know how many people have died in Darfur. This was helpfully pointed out by Guy Gabriel on the Making Sense of Darfur blog...

The use of these figures in the media is inconsistent; both individual journalists and newspapers themselves vary in the numbers they use. For example, a journalist for Britain’s Times newspaper used both 200,000 and 300,000 in articles published in February and March 2009 respectively, having previously used 300,000 for most of the previous year’s reporting.

The most irritating thing, is that he is completely right. I’ve dithered. Having spent a bit of time trying to work out the best number, I then screwed it up.

In confusing situations, where stats differ, the safest thing is to use a trusted authority. In this case, the United Nations uses a death toll of 300,000. This is what I was using for most of last year after Sir John Holmes first used the figure.

Only it became increasingly apparent that this number was the result of sticking a finger in the air and adding a few more deaths to the last figure. Asking his officials for details of the calculation just brought a rather confused series of knowing smiles.

Sir John reckoned his number was a reasonable extrapolation from a 2006 figure of 200,000 deaths. Yet we know the death toll of the past year, for example, is way, way less that the worst slaughter of 2003/2004. Last year, deaths from violence were around about 1600. Or not much more than 100 or so a month. We also know that the incredible efforts of the humanitarian agencies had brought down mortality indicators inside the camps (which could now be changing).

So my own preference is to state "more than 200,000". This is pretty vague, failing as it does to mention any upper limit. And I guess the best option would be to say something like 200,000-300,000 although I fear this would not make it past the subs.

Interestingly, the figures in the ICC prosecutor’s annex state a range 115,000-300,000. For a chap not afraid to bandy around comparisons with the Nazi gas chambers, this has a pretty low bottom limit. 

Why does any of this matter? A lot of people have died in Darfur so why get bogged down in numbers? Well, using the wrong number hands Khartoum another excuse to trot out its own underestimate and using inflated figures can push us towards the wrong solutions – overinflated numbers tending to increase the urgency of no fly zones and so on.

Still, at least we can agree on the area of Darfur… about the same size as Turkmenistan, right?