In the current context of economic crisis and severe cuts in government expenditure, the case for aid expenditure has been under increasing pressure. As IDS’ UK Public Opinion Monitor found late last year, a majority of the UK public believe that aid should be cut to help deal with the UK budget deficit. It seems likely that such sentiments are common in other aid-giving countries affected by the economic crisis. However, a recent study by the MICROCON research programme demonstrates the tragic human consequences that shortfalls in humanitarian aid had in Darfur in 2006 and 2007, serving as an important lesson for other contexts.
Although the Darfur region has seen low-level fighting for decades, the recent, more intense conflict began in 2003. It has involved considerable violence against civilians, with local ‘Arab’ militias burning and looting villages of those considered ‘black Africans’, killing men, raping women and forcing large parts of the population to flee their homes.
MICROCON’s research consisted of a ‘survey of surveys’ on Darfur, which had two purposes. First, it sought to arrive at a reliable estimate of deaths in the conflict from 2003 – 2008 – because estimates had varied very significantly, and had been manipulated for political purposes. Second, it aimed to go beyond the estimation of crude death rates to estimate numbers of cause-specific deaths: which is vital to understand the dynamics of the conflict.
From this analysis the number of ‘excess’ deaths – those over and above what might be expected in peacetime – is estimated to be approximately 300,000. The findings also suggest that more than 80% of excess deaths were not a result of the violence. These results are in agreement with studies of other conflicts in which initially high mortality rates are often related to a period of intense violence, but the main causes of mortality during the stabilisation period are diseases such as diarrhoea. In fact, it is commonly found in many violent conflicts that less than ten per cent of deaths are caused by violence.
A further significant finding is that deaths amongst displaced people are less likely to be caused by violence, but non-violence-related mortality rates are much higher. This difference could suggest that settings in which there are internally displaced people are protected from attacks, but overcrowding and precarious situations in which the displaced people live increase the risk of death from communicable diseases.
The importance of humanitarian aid is highlighted by events during the period from July 2006 to September 2007. This period saw an increase in insecurity, leading to more displacement. In turn, there was an increase in the diarrhoea-related mortality rate, and an increase in the mortality rate of children under five. A possible explanation for this increase is the 18% reduction in number of humanitarian aid workers during that period, while the number of affected people increased from 3.5 million to 4.2 million. As a result, the ratio of affected people to humanitarian aid workers increased by almost 50%, from 237 to 346 affected per staff member.
Part of the explanation for the decrease in numbers of humanitarian workers was a shortfall in the humanitarian budget for Darfur. In March, 2006, UNICEF’s representative in Sudan warned that reduced funding could severely affect the humanitarian operations in Darfur. One month later, the World Food Programme reduced the food aid rations by 50% because of funding shortages.
Funding levels were mostly restored by mid-2007, and at about the same time, mortality rates decreased again, suggesting that although insecurity might have contributed mostly to the mortality increase during that period, the decreased humanitarian aid as a consequence of funding shortages and resulting increase in number of disease-related deaths accounted for the rise in mortality rate between July, 2006, to September, 2007.
This finding is particularly important as it demonstrates the vital importance of consistent and generous funding for humanitarian efforts in extended emergencies. Although many people across the UK are undergoing hardship due to falling incomes, rising unemployment and declining government expenditure, it is essential that the development community continues to make the argument that relatively modest expenditures in developing countries can and often do make the difference between life and death.