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Last Sunday, Time's Africa correspondent, Sam Dealey, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times chiding Western aid groups for using 400,000 as the number of people killed in Darfur, a number Dealey says has no basis in fact. It's the same tack that the European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council is taking, insisting to the BBC that the 400,000 figure comes from shoddy statistics work. (Their position is understandable; the Council is made up of businesses with interests in Sudan, many of them with links to the government.)
In response, Eric Reeves, one of the most respected Darfur analysts working today who has himself done mortality estimates for the troubled region, slammed Dealey's piece as a "truly disgraceful and destructive piece of shoddy work." In a two-part series last year, Reeves did an admirable job of marshaling nearly all of the quantitative evidence available on mortality in Darfur, and concluded that the number of deaths in Darfur—from violence, disease, and malnutrition—was likely in the neighborhood of 450,000. It's no surprise then that Reeves takes offense at Dealey's accusation: that those who use the 400K figure not only do so with little corroborating evidence, but that they actually harm the Darfur debate by angering Khartoum and desensitizing the public to future crises—making real action that much more difficult.
Determining the number of dead in Darfur is obviously a vitally important task. And we should of course refrain from repeating numbers that have no basis; it's too tragically common that a statistic is cited and then repeated ad nauseum until it's essentially unquestioned by the public. But Reeves makes a crucial point that I think complicates Dealey's criticism: We ultimately can't seriously establish Darfur mortality rates because Khartoum doesn't want them to be established. They allow the security situation to remain too dangerous for U.N. teams to conduct studies, which seems to be an unspoken, official policy. By cutting off the data supply, Khartoum can continue to insist (and commentators such as Dealey can echo) that a number like 400,000 is grossly exaggerated.
So, while I tend to agree with Reeves that the 200K figure often cited in the press is probably on the low end, what is perhaps most tragic is that the higher figure may actually serve to paralyze action through simply psychological forces. In a fascinating piece earlier this year, Paul Slovic argued that people can become numbed by numbers, unable to grasp the gravity of huge numbers of dead and wounded. If he is right, it may make no difference to the public whether 200K or 400K have been killed in Darfur. That in itself is a numbing thought.