Monday, June 13, 2011

Inflated emergency and aid statistics hampering more equitable distribution of resources

The Economist (June 4, 2011) states that a draft United States Agency for International Aid (USAID) report found that last year's Haiti earthquake statistics were inflated. The report indicated that between 46,000 and 85,000 people were killed, and not 316,000 as Haiti's government claimed. Not only did the government inflate the statistics, aid agencies (international non-government organizations - INGOs) cited 600,000 living in tent cities, although the USAID report believes it was only 66,000.

Inflating emergency, disaster, and post-conflict statistics is not new - in previous years the numbers were never verified and thus there were high discrepancies between the actual and the estimated. I am a DQA specialist - a data quality audit/assessment - and have frequently encountered INGOs and governments over-estimating figures or double counting. It's understandable because the amount of donor funding increases as the statistics rise. But no matter how much money donors provide, it is never enough to adequately assist in the recovery and rehabilitation of a country after a disaster.

However, the problem of inflating statistics to gain funding is threefold: (1) it discredits agencies and therefore they will find it more difficult to gain funding; (2) it leads to donor fatigue - particularly for individuals supporting charities; and (3) it impacts equitable distribution of vital resources.

Natural disasters, such as earthquakes and floods, typically receive more pubic and donor attention than conflicts. And private funding from individuals is generally never counted as part of the donor funding contribution, and therefore the true amount a country receives is difficult to determine.

A huge influx of donor funding poured into the relief efforts for the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004 (estimated to have killed 230,000 in 14 countries), at a time when little attention was given to the Darfur crisis, commencing in February 2003(estimated to have killed between 20,000 and several hundred thousand people). And after Haiti's earthquake on January 12, 2010, little attention was given to the Pakistan floods of July 2010 in which an estimated 1,750 people died and an estimated 18 million were affected. And often the government of a strategic ally will receive donor funding after a brief conflict, while other post-conflict countries in which civil war has been raging for up to 20 years receives the same amount or less. And more often than not, government instability and corruption dissipates donor funding.

Unequal distribution of resources is often the reason a country is disadvantaged in the first place. Further inequity in the distribution of aid funding can hamper critical aid. It's never easy to determine where donor funding should be directed, but the early verification of estimated numbers of deaths and internally displaced people might provide fairer reasoning and rationale for the allocation of aid resources. The American government, through USAID, is at least contributing to the process of data verification - and have been for several years. I conducted the DQA for USAID in Iraq in 2007. Governments of countries in crisis and INGOs (aid agencies responding to disasters) often estimate the number of people affected by an emergency in haste, affecting the distribution of funds and resources - mostly in a negative way, not just for their own country, but for others in need.

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