Schwartz is a Haiti expert and longtime critic of the NGOs -- particularly of the Christian charities, a majority of which are from the United States -- that have long run a network of schools and orphanages in the country. Given the controversial character of Schwartz's work, it is very much to USAID's credit that it was willing to fund his research, even if the agency is now running away from his report like a scalded cat. Schwartz has said repeatedly and restated on his blog that whatever the true figures, the earthquake was a great tragedy. "Intellectually," he wrote, "I really don't care how many people got killed.... [I]n terms of the tragedy, less is better."
This would seem unarguable. And yet the consternation over the report in Washington and Port-au-Prince is profound. The reason for this is fear. In an era of scarce resources in which Barack Obama's administration is under harsh pressure from a Congress that is highly skeptical of foreign aid, the discovery that the resources committed to Haitian relief may not have been insufficient -- as many NGO representatives have been saying for at least a year -- but instead have been excessive is a dangerous game.
Anyone familiar with the debate on Capitol Hill these days will know that such fears are more than warranted, above all because it plays into the corrupt-locals-exploiting-generous-Americans meme that is never far from the surface in official Washington. Whether that is a good enough reason to reject Schwartz's conclusions is another question entirely. And in reality, even if Schwartz is off by a considerable extent, there is little chance that the initial estimates of the dead and displaced in Port-au-Prince are any more accurate than initial estimates of these figures in any of the other major natural disasters of the past half-century.
Even today, we only have a fairly approximate idea of how many people died in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, while it is virtually certain that the initial casualty estimates for those killed in Burma when Cyclone Nargis struck in 2008 were wildly overstated. In that instance, the supposed indifference of the Burmese dictatorship to the plight of its own citizens and the urgent need for relief supplies led Bernard Kouchner, then France's foreign minister, to propose that the U.N. Security Council invoke its new "responsibility to protect" doctrine to authorize delivery of relief supplies -- whether or not the authorities in Burma gave their assent -- which was to say, by force if necessary.
In most cases, death-toll uncertainty arises not because the truth is being concealed but rather because getting accurate figures in countries without competent bureaucracies is very difficult. (North Korea is a glaring exception: If we do not know how many people have died of starvation there, it is because Pyongyang does not want the death toll known.) As Rony Brauman, former president of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), put it, at least in the initial stages of a disaster, what NGOs and U.N. agencies think the figures are is almost always guesswork to one degree or another.
The problem is that U.N. agencies, USAID, its European counterparts (90 percent of relief funding still comes from the OECD countries), and NGOs almost all think that to get attention for a given crisis, they must use apocalyptic language and err on the side of overestimating the death, damage, and displacement that has been caused. To do anything else is to risk not getting the minimum help needed. Call it a professional deformation, or one of the many unfortunate knock-on consequences of the 24-hour news cycle in which events bob to the surface only to be submerged by other, still more lurid happenings. If the public presentation of relief emergencies were an economy, it would be one wracked by galloping inflation.
Of course it is understandable that NGOs and U.N. agencies feel that they must exaggerate. But each time they do, they up the rhetorical ante that much more. What will happen when the next earthquake devastates a city and the OCHA is called upon to act and mobilize resources? Will Byrs or one of her successors have to claim an even more historic, more unprecedented disaster in order to get the world's attention? In the name of mobilizing compassion, we are raising the bar to impossible heights. At this rate, the 46,000 to 85,000 Haitians Schwartz estimates to have died in the earthquake will seem too small a number to really command the attention of donors and the general public in the developed world. Perhaps this has already happened. Perhaps this is why Schwartz's report has sown such panic within the U.S. government. If so, we really are damned.