Darfur Deaths: Sky High

Sociologist John Hagan completed his book “Justice in the Balkans,” a critical look at the Hague Tribunal and war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, just as violence erupted in Sudan’s western province of Darfur in 2003. Now more than three years later, the Northwestern University professor has turned to correcting historical errors in real time. His study, coauthored with University of Wisconsin professor Alberto Palloni and to be published tomorrow in the journal Science, provides the first rigorous estimate of the death toll in Darfur. The two scientists found that 200,000 to 400,000 people have died since violence began, rather than the tens of thousands widely reported in the media.

The war-torn environment of Darfur has made accurate estimates difficult to come up with. To arrive at their tally, Hagan and Palloni drew on a wide range of previous studies and surveys performed in West Darfur. These include the World Health Organization’s survey of people in displacement camps, pulled together in 2004 with the cooperation of the Sudanese Ministry of Health, surveys from Médecins Sans Frontières and other studies by the U.S. State Department and the United Nations. The scientists estimate that 1 million people have been displaced in West Darfur alone. NEWSWEEK’S Tony Dokoupil spoke with Hagan about the findings. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Why are we even working with “estimates” rather than hard data?

John Hagan: Two reasons. First, aid workers and foreign journalists are extremely restricted by the Sudanese government. Today they can’t enter certain camps to deliver food and supplies, let alone conduct a rigorous survey. Second, the same forces that put some people in the camps, restrict others from gaining a full picture of the crisis.

What worries you about unreliable data on Darfur?

Accurate figures are necessary as a basis for relief efforts, but also as a frame to comprehend the conflict and the deepening genocide in the region. I’m troubled by reports from the BBC and Reuters, as recently as this week, that understate the scale of the killing as being in “the tens of thousands”—a full order of magnitude below reality. We’re seeing an overabundance of caution that approaches the irresponsible.

Why do you think previous estimates were inaccurate?

This is probably best answered by going through three of the most quoted studies to date. First, the World Health Organization study released in fall 2004 focuses almost entirely on deaths from disease and malnutrition rather than deaths from violence. Additionally, it adopts the doubtful assumption that monthly death rates are constant. The United Nations study that followed was less a study than a calculation [extrapolating from the WHO’s estimated monthly rate]. It simply compounded errors. Finally, the State Department study, while it avoided the constant mortality mistake, relied on health and nutritional studies, and other undisclosed surveys.

How does your survey improve upon the existing figures?

Ours is a kind of meta-analysis. We used the best of existing primary surveys—those with systematic sampling, age-specific mortality rates and some gauge on pre-camp violence—to build a cross-sectioned estimate of the rate of mortality that’s up to scholarly standards.

And what’s the range you came up with?

Well, 200,000 dead is the cautious statistical floor. That’s the low end of the range, with the actual number being even possibly over 400,000.

That’s consistent with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the British Parliament’s recent estimates. What about American activist and Smith College professor Eric Reeve’s estimate of 450,000?

That’s certainly within the range of possibility.

What impact do you think your study will have on the crisis?

We hope our study will end uncertainty about floor estimates of mortality in Darfur … and thus increase understanding of the urgency of the genocidal situation on the ground.