Did Haiti Commit Disaster Inflation? A U.S. Study Raises the Possibility

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Updated 5/31/11

Those of us who cover the developing world deal increasingly today with a new kind of inflation: disaster inflation. I first really noticed it in 1998, while reporting Hurricane Mitch. The storm ravaged Honduras and Central America, but governments felt compelled to inflate the death toll. Even today, the official count stands at about 20,000, while more objective estimates, by agencies like the U.S. National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), put it at almost half, or about 11,000. Yet even that makes Mitch the second deadliest Atlantic hurricane in history – so why the need to double it?

One theory: Third World countries, for good reason, have a chronic fear of losing the First World’s aid – and media –  attention. Larger death, damage and injury numbers mean more money will roll in for a more sustained period of time. Some of that calculation stems from corruption – officials in developing countries game the international aid system in the best of times, and they game it big at the worst of times – but as much if not more stems from compensation. That is, trying to compensate for the fact that, these days, the world unfortunately isn’t that moved by a disaster that kills 5,000 people and causes $1 billion in damage – so if you want to secure commensurate aid, it’s best to set the death toll at 10,000 and the damage estimate at $2 billion.

A lot of people are now asking if this was the case with the epic earthquake that destroyed Haiti last year. First, let’s be clear: this disaster was one of the worst to ever hit the western hemisphere, one that merited the world’s remarkable emergency response and the more than $10 billion that donor countries have since pledged. Still, like a lot of journalists, I’ve been skeptical about the Haitian government’s spiraling death estimates, which today top 300,000. In fact, a week after the quake hit, as official figures neared 200,000, TIME reminded its readers that other, more objective sources put it at closer to 100,000. Since then we’ve admittedly referred to the official 200,000-plus figure, which the government says it based largely on surveys of mass graves.

But on Monday, May 30, the Associated Press’ Trenton Daniel broke the story of a new, U.S.-commissioned study that estimates the Haiti quake death toll at 85,000 tops. According to the AP, it also calculates the number of Haitians left homeless by the catastrophe at fewer than 900,000, not the 1.5 million the government and international aid organizations have insisted on; and it suggests that about 375,000 are still living in squalid tent cities, not 680,000. Moreover, whereas the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (which we’ve learned to trust a lot less since Hurricane Katrina) said the quake had sent 20 million cubic meters (26 million cubic yards) of rubble raining down on Port-au-Prince and other hard-hit cities, the new report, written for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), says the real amount is less than half that.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the official Haiti figures are far off or even wrong – some media, like the Miami Herald, have concluded that 200,000-plus dead is possible – and the State Department notes that the study, led by anthropologist Timothy Schwartz, a critic of international aid efforts in Haiti, still has some “internal inconsistencies” that need to be worked out. More significant, USAID’s Haiti director Carlene Dei is distancing her agency from the study, which she said in a statement Tuesday afternoon was not commissioned to study fatalities: “Any comment on the death toll of the tragic earthquak of January 2010 that affected so many, is beyond the scope of the commission and purely reflects the views of the author.”

The study’s final tally could of course be higher than 85.000; but it’s doubtful it will be anywhere near 300,000. Yet even if the number is 85,000, that still makes the Haiti temblor the hemisphere’s deadliest on record – and, as I said, worthy of every effort and resource the international community has poured and plans to pour into the recovery and reconstruction mission. (One irony, however, is that Haitian officials lowballed the number of amputees the quake wrought: though the figure certainly isn’t as high as 100,000, as many doctors and medical aid organizations reported early on, it’s certainly not as low as the few thousand the government reported – an underestimate that might reflect Haitian society’s less-than-accepting attitude toward the disabled.)

Even so, this all begs an important question: if the Haitian government did fear that a sub-100,000 death toll wouldn’t muster sufficient international attention (and I’m not saying that Haitian officials, who say they’re sticking to their estimate, did fear that, nor would they ever admit it if they did), was that concern justified? Has the world become so inured to disasters today that only six-figure body counts – like that of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed almost 250,000 people – will move us to step up? “One of the dangers that concerns me is that victims will now have to compete,” Linda Polman, author of The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong With Humanitarian Aid? told me. “It’s leading to the inflation of human suffering,” she says, which might have been behind the Haitian government’s epic but perhaps exaggerated death estimates.

But if that’s true, here’s the Catch-22: the governments of developing nations may only be making the world more jaded. That’s because as they inflate disaster figures, we’ll eventually start concluding that they’re exaggerating, and our response to disasters could weaken accordingly. “That’s the other danger,” says Polman, who believes NGOs and other aid organizations are as complicit in this “vicious circle” as governments are. “It could reach a point where we won’t listen anymore.” And that would be one of the worst disasters of all.