Grave Inflation

A new report on the Haiti earthquake reminds again that, for aid groups, more casualties means more funding.

I once met a High Court judge in London who complained that as the criminals before him seemed to commit more and more brutal acts, he was having increasing difficulty knowing how to describe his outrage when it came time to sentence them. "What am I supposed to do?" he asked. "If I were being honest, I would have to say something along the lines of 'This is the most horrific offense that I have encountered since, well, last Tuesday.' Obviously, I can't do that. But sometimes mustering the requisite hyperbole that the case before me is uniquely horrible can be a bit difficult."

Humanitarian relief workers must often feel the same way. At least, one hopes they do. Here is Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), speaking in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Jan. 12, 2010. "This is a historic disaster," she said. "We have never been confronted with such a disaster in the U.N. memory. It is like no other."

The problem with such over-the-top rhetoric is that it requires a willful suspension of disbelief and no small degree of historical amnesia. Was the Haitian earthquake really a greater challenge and a deeper tragedy than the refugee emergency in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide or the 1990s famines in North Korea -- both of which involved the relief arms of the United Nations? Perhaps a moral philosopher could adjudicate the hierarchy of these horrors, but surely it is above the pay grade of an international civil servant like Byrs or, for that matter, a writer like me.

Taken individually, such assertions are bad enough. Worse still is that in almost every natural disaster, famine, relief emergency, or forced movement of people, there is always an aid worker, journalist, U.N. official, or some political figure to say that what is taking place in country A, B, or C, is the worst example of its kind that the world has yet known. The world "biblical" is usually a dead giveaway (at least when employed metaphorically rather than, as fundamentalist Christians sometimes do, in the literal sense of God's wrath made manifest). It was used by British journalist Michael Buerk when he reported on the Ethiopian famine in 1984, and it was used by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to describe Port-au-Prince in 2010, and any number of times in between.

But even hyperbole must be undergirded by something -- and in the world of what are conventionally, if somewhat misleadingly called humanitarian emergencies, it is almost always the brute number of people killed, shelters destroyed, services unavailable, and livelihoods ended. That was certainly the case in Haiti, where the earthquake was estimated to have killed somewhere between 200,000 (the lowest NGO estimate) and 318,000 people (the official Haitian government figure) and left 1.5 million people homeless, of whom, in the spring of 2011, some 680,000 were still said to be living in resettlement camps.

Perhaps this is why last month's leaking of a report prepared by business and development consultancy LTL Strategies that questions all these figures -- instead estimating a death toll of somewhere between 46,000 and 85,000, an initial displacement of 895,000, and a population still living in camps of 375,000 -- has caused such consternation in official Washington, not to mention on the part of many mainline relief NGOs working in Haiti today, as well as the Haitian government. Ironically, the report had been commissioned by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), though for now at least the agency is not willing to vouch for it. This has led Timothy T. Schwartz, the report's principal author, to write on his blog of the U.S. government's "effort to discredit a survey that it commissioned and for which it reviewed and approved the methodology."

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.


A Martyr in Morocco

Do the protests in Morocco finally have enough steam to unsettle the monarchy?

While the world's attention is focused on Yemen and Syria, the Arab Spring is slowly gaining momentum in Morocco. In this North African kingdom, protesters are increasingly enraged by the security forces' crackdown on peaceful demonstrations and dismissive of the promises of reform that the monarchy made in March.

The protest movement was reinvigorated on May 29, when thousands of pro-democracy protesters marched peacefully in different cities in the largest demonstrations yet. In Morocco's most populous city of Casablanca, helmeted police on motorcycles attacked protesters with clubs. Activists estimate that dozens of people were injured, the majority in Casablanca.

Kamal Amari, 30, was a university graduate with a degree in physics who worked as a private security officer at the port in the western city of Safi. On May 29, he was caught up in the crackdown there. "Seven policemen beat him for five minutes," said Adel Fathi, a friend.

On June 2, Amari succumbed to his wounds. Local activists call him the "first martyr" of Morocco's freedom movement. His death has transformed Safi into a front line of the country's protest movement.

The government claimed that Amari died from a chronic illness, but his family insists that local authorities did not conduct a proper autopsy. Instead, his brothers say, they were offered a bribe to keep quiet. Their father almost agreed, but the brothers refused.

A day after Amari was buried, his family and friends sat around low-set tables in an airless room. Flies buzzed around chunks of bread and sweet tea. They passed around pictures of the dead man. "Cute?" asked a relative, pausing at a picture in which Amari looked five or six years old.

Amari's brothers said that he had initially refused to visit the hospital after being beaten, fearing arrest. They said that after his death, the government also sent a religious leader to urge them to bury the body quickly. They claimed that was cover to avoid an autopsy.

One brother resolved not to let the matter end there. "I want to know who gave the order for the violence," said Mohamed. "I want the policemen and the minister of interior to be held responsible."

Mohamed, however, did not dare blame Morocco's King Mohammed VI. To do so would be breaking the law, specifically Article 23 of the Moroccan Constitution, which reads, "The person of the King shall be sacred and inviolable."

This hesitation is mirrored in Morocco's protesters. The pro-democracy movement, which takes its name from the first date of protests, Feb. 20, is not calling for the overthrow of the monarchy, but it wants a parliamentary system in which the king can serve as a symbolic head of state. On the protesters' Facebook site, they call for "a democratic constitution that represents the true will of the people."

The 47-year-old king, who came to the throne in 1999, does remain popular among many Moroccans for amending the Family Law to improve women's rights and authorizing investigations into crimes committed by the state during his father's reign. He is also credited with pursuing economic reforms that reduced the poverty rate from 15.3 percent in 2000-2001 to 9 percent in 2006-2007. And on March 9, in a bid to forestall further protests, the king pledged to embark on "comprehensive constitutional reform" that would expand individual rights and transfer increased power to Parliament.

A great deal of popular anger is directed at the corrupt government. Even if the king does personally intervene in Amari's case, many do not believe that this would guarantee justice. "The king may call for a fair investigation, but investigators can do whatever they want and say that the investigation was fair," said Khadija Ryadi, president of the Moroccan Association of Human Rights.

But with the king holding ultimate authority and people's anger growing quickly, it remains to be seen how long the monarch can avoid association with the government's decisions. "The government is zero!" shouted protesters at a rally in Safi on June 5 to condemn Amari's killing. Local journalists estimated that more than 10,000 people attended the demonstration.

"Right now, we want democracy, we want more rights, but we are not against the king yet," said Hafsa Laagraovi, a high school student who marched in the rally.

"We walk in peace," the protesters chanted as the human river weaved its way through the city. The police in Safi stayed away to avoid a clash, reporters said. Large protests all over the country passed without violence on June 5.

While many Moroccans may be satisfied with the king's promise of constitutional reforms, activists don't think these will be far-reaching enough and say that the reform process is already tainted because the committee to formulate constitutional amendments was appointed by the king.

"Even if the king's propositions were good, they cannot satisfy us because they were not through a democratic process," said Hamza Mahfoud, 25, a leader of the Feb. 20 movement and a philosophy student. "Democracy cannot be a gift."

Mahfoud is well aware of the potential risks of taking to the streets. On May 29, he joined protesters in the Sbata neighborhood of Casablanca, where he was beaten by roughly 10 police officers on his face and back. "Two of their clubs broke when [they hit] me," he said. Even after being injured, Mahfoud said he simply held a cloth to stem the bleeding near his eye and kept chanting against the government.

Spreading the word

Sami ElMoudni, a 24-year-old journalist, didn't get any sleep before boarding a bus in Casablanca to cover the protests in Safi. He had danced the night away after Morocco beat Algeria in a soccer match the previous evening.

ElMoudni could have covered the protests in Casablanca, but he thought there might be a bigger story in Safi. "The protest in Safi is special because of Amari's death, and I want to hear from his family," he said. Some journalists stayed away from the town, fearing that the city's emotionally charged atmosphere would lead to violence.

ElMoudni's experience highlights the limitations facing local journalists seeking to cover the protest movement. He says that he is free to report on the family's version of the events that led to Amari's death and the government's response -- but he can't criticize the king. Journalists say that one of the issues they are forced to steer clear of is the king's business interests and projects.

The initial media coverage of the pro-democracy movement was quite comprehensive and even encouraged by the state, according to journalists. But after activists rejected the promises made in the king's speech in March, the government perceived the movement as a real threat. Since then, journalists say their editors are holding back on pieces critical of the regime. They are also under pressure from advertisers whose businesses depend on the favor of the king and his entourage.

Criticizing the government can have dangerous consequences. Rachid Nini, editor and owner of Al Massae newspaper, was arrested in April and charged with "compromising the security and safety of the homeland." Nini had criticized Morocco's Directorate of Territorial Surveillance for abducting people and called for the body to be supervised by the Parliament, according to local reports. He was held in Casablanca without bail and was sentenced to one year in prison on June 9. However, some journalists in Morocco also say that he was critical of the intelligence services in favor of other government security services and eventually fell victim to the conflict. Journalists are expected to protest against the sentence, however.

In light of the restrictions, many journalists are turning to Facebook, Twitter, and blogs to cover events under pseudonyms. One journalist who writes for a French-language magazine in Morocco said that he turned to the Internet after his editors repeatedly turned down his pitches about the Feb. 20 movement. He sarcastically credited the government for warding off the freedom movement in Morocco more successfully than its counterparts in Syria and Bahrain.

"The Morocco authorities are smarter," he said. "They are not killing us, but they are dealing with us without changing anything.... It's like applying some makeup to hide the problem."

Inside the Feb. 20 movement

Morocco's opposition movement is an umbrella coalition who members have found common ground in their desire for a parliamentary monarchy. But there are still significant differences between the leftist groups, which want a secular state, and the Islamists, who have the largest following within the movement.

Some liberal publications are being encouraged by the government to play up the Islamists' support in order to scare Moroccans about the risks of change. The Islamists, however, are doing their best to assuage the population that they do not seek a theocracy. "Islam does not rest with one person; Islam is for institutions," said Nadia Yassine, who founded the women's wing of al-Adl wa al-Ihsan (Justice and Charity), the largest Islamist opposition group in the country. "We have the right to defend our Muslim identity."

Yassine has been a tireless advocate against Wahhabism, the strict brand of Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia. "We are not like Iran or Saudi Arabia," she said. "The Turkey example is positive in our eyes."

Nevertheless, some leftists are still wary of the Islamists' populist appeal. Some moderate leftists have suggested that it would be wise to let the king, who styles himself the "commander of the faithful," keep his religious authority so that it does not fall into the hands of Islamists.

"We are not afraid of the Islamists," said one leftist activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to appear to be portraying the movement as divided. "The left has always had a strong presence here, and ultimately it will be what the people want."

"Right now, we all want elections, separation of powers, and freedom of speech," said Omar Radi, another leftist activist. "When we will have this, then our differences will be visible."

But despite their differences, both leftist and Islamist protesters must contend with the constant threat of government harassment. Government agents have infiltrated the weekly meetings held by protesters to coordinate their plans of action, and the agents work to make their discussions unproductive, according to Elabadila Maaelaynine, a 46-year-old IT consultant and activist in the capital, Rabat.

"They are living with us," he said. "They are forcing us to become a secret organization that we don't want to be."

Maaelaynine said that activists' phones were bugged and they were watched, but they had not been threatened or imprisoned. "Their bugging system must be pretty ancient," he laughed. "Sometimes you can hear them talking to each other."

The protesters are largely undeterred by the threat of physical violence and the harassment. When I saw Mahfoud, the student activist, on June 4, he was busy posting articles and videos about the movement on his Facebook page, which was recently hacked. He opened a new account the same day. Multiple messages and notifications pop up on his page every minute.

Mahfoud, who flinched when his friend patted him on the back, vowed that the movement would continue and that it would remain peaceful. He still has headaches from the beating he took in Casablanca. In a living room filled with books by Greek philosophers, Karl Marx, Leo Tolstoy, Baruch Spinoza, and others, he held up the X-ray of his injuries to the sunlight. "That was the best day of my life," he said. "This is the best time of my life."