Nicholas Kristof is writing about Congo again this morning:

It’s easy to wonder how world leaders, journalists, religious figures and ordinary citizens looked the other way while six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. And it’s even easier to assume that we’d do better.

But so far the brutal war here in eastern Congo has not only lasted longer than the Holocaust but also appears to have claimed more lives. A peer- reviewed study put the Congo war’s death toll at 5.4 million as of April 2007 and rising at 45,000 a month. That would leave the total today, after a dozen years, at 6.9 million.

What those numbers don’t capture is the way Congo has become the world capital of rape, torture and mutilation…

Kristof is right about that – though not quite in the way he seems to mean. Actually the 5.4 million number from April 2007 has just been debunked by a new report out from the Human Security Report Project at Simon Fraser University, which argues that two of the five International Rescue Committee studies from which the estimate was derived woefully under-estimated the baseline peacetime national mortality in the Congo and therefore dramatically exaggerated the number of deaths in the country caused by the war.

In determining the excess death toll, the “baseline” mortality rate is critically important. If it is too low, the excess death toll will be too high.

The IRC uses the sub-Saharan average of 1.5 deaths per 1,000 per month as its baseline mortality rate for all but the very last survey when the sub-Saharan average drops to 1.4. Using the sub-Saharan African average mortality rate as a comparator––to indicate how high death rates were in the east of the DRC compared to the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, for example—would have been both instructive and appropriate. Using it as a measure of the pre-war mortality rate in the DRC itself makes little sense.

The IRC argues the sub-Saharan average mortality rate is a conservative choice for pre-war DRC because it was the highest estimate available. In 2002 the IRC recorded no violent deaths in the western region––which it refers to as the “nonconflict” zone. Yet, the mortality rate in this zone is 2.0 deaths per 1,000 of the population per month––a third higher than the sub-Saharan African average that the IRC uses as its pre-war baseline mortality rate.

But, the DRC is in no sense an average sub-Saharan African country—indeed, it is ranked at, or near, the bottom of every sub-Saharan African development indicator. The baseline mortality rate for the country as a whole should therefore be considerably higher than the sub-Saharan African average. The survey evidence from the western part of the country suggests that this is indeed the case.

The fighting in the DRC was also heavily concentrated in the eastern provinces during the period covered by the first two surveys. This suggests that in this period too there was no significant violent death toll in the western part of the country. Indeed, this is precisely the assumption the IRC makes in arriving at its 5.4 million excess death toll estimate for the DRC for the period 1998 to 2007.

The report breaks down the numbers in much greater detail and contrasts them to the much more conservative and, it argues, rigorously arrived at estimates – estimates that have been largely ignored by the press.

If “only” some 3 million people, instead of 5.4 million, died by 2007, does this undermine Kristof’s call for action on the Congo? By no means. A more useful metric may not be the absolute numbers (which in themselves don’t seem to incite much policy attention) but rather the relative numbers: Congo is one of the few places in the world where, according to this report, violence has reached sufficient levels to actually raise the national mortality rate (which is declining in nations elsewhere around the globe in both war and peacetime). According to their data, the one other case in which this occurred in recent decades is Rwanda.

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