Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Numbers

Haiti is in the news again, and as usual it's not for anything good. I feel a bit about this new story the way I did back in February 2010, when a certain woman from Idaho was arrested for stealing children in Haiti. We only get a certain number of column inches. Why do they always have to be filled with stories like this?

"This," this time, is the allegation that the Haitian government and NGOs exaggerated the death toll from the earthquake. Here is Time Magazine's article about this and here is the piece by Timothy Schwartz that Time quotes. While the Haitian government used figures like 230,000 and 300,000, the new report prepared for USAID says the actual number who died was between 46,000 and 85,000. (By the way, notice that that is still a huge range.)

While I am unhappy at the idea that officials would simply make up numbers (and we still don't know that for sure), I ask you to think about how things were in Haiti at that time. There were bodies stacked in the streets. Every government ministry had fallen down. Bodies were buried in mass graves without any kind of records being kept. Some bodies have still not been recovered from beneath rubble. The government was helpless in the face of the disaster and couldn't meet the most basic needs of the people; are we really going to criticize them because they couldn't do statistical analysis? When we talked about it back then, we always said, "We'll never know how many people died." And, USAID notwithstanding, we never will. Nobody even knew how many people were in the Port-au-Prince slums to start with; how do we know how many died? Schwartz's mention of NGOs and international organizations losing no one is entirely beside the point. People who have jobs with NGOs and international organizations tend to live in sturdier houses than the average member of the population.

And besides, in what universe is the number 46,000 (to take the lowest end) deaths ever preceded by the word only? When compared with 300,000, that may seem like a small number. But it's not. That many people died in a single event? What about the ones who died of injuries later; are they counted? And of course, what about the survivors who are still, more than 16 months later, living in inadequate shelter? Shouldn't we be focusing more on them than on quibbling over numbers of deaths?

Let's not use these new numbers to allow us to shrug and say, "Well, they lied. Obviously that earthquake wasn't a big deal, after all." Here's what Time has to say:
"The huge death toll and widespread destruction helped justify an international outpouring of aid for the impoverished Caribbean country, including $5.5 billion pledged during a March 2010 U.N. donor's conference."
While of course there are ongoing problems with aid and how it is administered, I would hate to see worthy projects not get funded because of this.

Every one of those people who died was an individual, a person who was loved by other people and who is mourned. We lost one student from our school and several of our kids lost parents. Every single one of us lost people we loved. Each one of those deaths mattered, mattered infinitely. Stalin said it best (and those are words you won't read on this blog very often): "One death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a statistic."


elizabeth said...

well put. thank you.

Janet said...

Yes -- well said, Ruth.

I'll never forget the images of the aftermath.