This is a response to a report that I wrote for USAID regarding the Haiti earthquake death toll. I don’t know if I am even free to discuss the report because it’s not official yet. However, what I can do is discuss the validity of the Haiti earthquake death toll count and whether or not a low death toll estimate should come as a surprise. The answer is “no,” it should not be a surprise, not to anyone in Haiti. Here’s a review of how the government arrived at the death toll and summary of data I compiled from elsewhere and that bears on the death toll.
On the 14th of January, day two after the Earthquake, President Preval said that estimates of the number dead ranged from 30,000 to 50,000 but concluded that, "It's too early to give a number," (CNN 14).
On the 16th of January the Red Cross estimated 45,000 to 50,000 dead and PADF 50,000 to 100,000. They based it on their volunteers.
On the 16th of January, the very next day, the government tripled the number, issuing an official declaration of 140,000 dead.
On the 23rd, after Belgian disaster response expert Claude de Ville de Goyet noted that "round numbers are a sure sign that nobody knows." The government almost immediately offered a precise figure of 111,481 dead.
But on the next day, January 24th , they upped the figure to an even 150,000 killed, an increase of 38,000 over the day before. The same day, Secretary-General Edmund Mulet of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti, put the figure at 112,350 dead, 194,000 injured. It was not clear what he based his estimate on.
One week later, on Saturday the 31st , the Haitian government added a rather exact 100,000 to the UN figure, saying the death toll was 212,000.
Three days later, Wednesday February 3rd, Ministry of Communications raised the official death toll to 230,000 and then President Rene Preval added another 40,000 to the count, saying that the government had buried 270,000 bodies.
When Michelle Faul of the AP called and inquired regarding how the government was arriving at its figures, the press secretary withdrew the statement, saying there was an error. Within minutes it was re-issued.
The next day, under pressure to explain, the ministry again said that it was a typo, the number should have read 170,000. But in the same conversation the Minister concluded that, "For the moment we count 230,000 deaths,”—60,000 more than she had said the day before. But even that was not definitive, “It's a partial figure."
When Michelle Faul tried to figure out how they arrived at the new figures, she was told that the government organization CNE was counting. CNE officials referred questions to the prime minister's office. The prime minister's office referred questions to the Prime Minister's Secretary-General. The Prime Minister's Secretary-General could not be reached. Someone along the way said that it was not CNE that was counting, it was CP (Civil Protection). CP director Alta Jean-Baptiste referred questions to Ministry of Interior Antoine Bien-Aime who assured Faul that, “CP is doing a precise count and the numbers they give out are numbers that are proven." When Faul asked how they arrived at the numbers, he couldn’t say.
When Faul went out to the government sites CNE drivers and workers told her that, “no one has been keeping tabs.” One of the workers told her that, "The trucks were just dropping people wherever, and then we would move in and cover them up…It was impossible to do a count."
Assad Volcy, a spokesman for the National Palace, tried to clear matters up. “experts” he said, had devised a formula to calculate how many quake victims have been buried. When asked what that formula was, Volcy said he didn’t know.
On the 15th of Februrary, CP officially declared 217,366 people died from the 12 January earthquake. They also said that 1,301,491 people were living in tent cities.
The only news agency to ever question the death count issue again was Netherlands Radio Worldwide whose journalists carefully checked all the Government sources, visiting cemeteries and burial grounds, and concluded on February 23rd that even if 30,000 people were still under the rubble and another 10,000 disposed of privately or burned, there were still no more than 92,000 people killed and probably less. They pointed to gross inconsistencies, such as that the Central government reported 20,000 to 30,000 deaths in Leogane, while local Leogane authorities claimed to have buried 3,364 (two weeks after the earthquake they had told me 1,600). The Central government also claimed 4,000 dead in Jacmel, while local Jacmel authorities reported 300 to 400 dead (ACTED a French NGO whose workers were involved in burying the dead reported 145).
On February 21, President Preval raised the total body count to 300,000
It seems pretty clear that no one, not the government nor anyone else, had any idea how many people were killed. But the interesting thing is that, while I am not impugning any motivations, almost everyone who had anything to do with any type of official agency or NGO seemed deliberately bent on skewing the numbers as high as they possibly could. And they did so with total disregard for the evidence.
The UN--which on the anniversary of the earthquake posted on their website,“The quake killed more than 200,000 Haitians and left more than two million homeless"-- lost 101 out of 9,151 international staff in Haiti at the time of the earthquake (1.1%). The US embassy which also repeated the government death toll of over 200,000 lost 1 of 172 foreign staff members (0.58%) and 6 of 800 staff members (0.75%). Of the 43,000 US citizens and residents in Haiti at the time the embassy was able to determine that 104 had been killed; 2,000 they could not locate (not unusual at the best of times). The Canadian Embassy reported losing 58 of 6,000 citizens in Haiti at the time (0.97%). The Dominicans lost 24 of 2,600 (0.92%), some 22 of whom were female sex workers who died in a single building.
The Haitian Government, which to this day issues varying claims of 17 to 30% of all civil servants killed, never has provided precise lists, not to anyone. The only thing we know for sure was that the parliament and the police were hit very hard. In the days after the earthquake, Mario Andresol, the Chief of Haiti’s 8,000 member police force had said "We lost 70 police officers, nearly 500 are still missing and 400 were wounded," the suggestion seeming to be that many of the 500 were dead. When all was said and done we know that 77 policemen were killed (that’s 0.73% of the 10,544 police in Haiti, and if we figure that 80% are in Port-au-Prince—standard-- then its about 0.9% of those in Port-au-Prince were killed. We also know that two of 2 of 100 senators were killed and no congressman or ministers.
After the second or third week journalists were no longer asking aid agencies about how many staff they had lost and the agencies were deferring to the Haitian Government for their figures. The United Nations, which had early on declared that it would come up with an official estimate, subsequently declined to conduct its own count. The Red Cross was mum. No other NGO ever questioned the figures again. On the contrary, as with the UN and the embassies, they invariably latched on to and restated the government figures.
In June 2010, the home page for Oxfam, which lost one of its 100 employees in Port-au-Prince at the time of the earthquake, was citing the government figure of 230,000; CRS lost none of its 100 employees in Port-au-Prince but was citing the same figures; World Vision lost none of its 95 staff in Port-au-Prince but implied there were more, saying “at least 230,000 dead;” MSF lost 7 of its staff of 800 but said the earthquake, “killed hundreds of thousands of people.” The Red Cross was the same, they lost no one. God’s Littlest Angels, featured on CBC, ABC, CNN, and Larry King, same, they lost no one either. Most NGOs lost no one. Businesses were the same: Triology lost 5 of 576 (0.9%); Digicel, 2 of 900 (0.02%); CEMEX, 0 of 115; Petion Ville Golf and Tennis Club 0 of 100, not a single employee even lost a home.
Intellectually, I really don’t care how many people got killed in the earthquake. The draft report for USAID was simply a job I was performing with a team of some 20 University educated professionals, including two other PhDs. But personally, for me, in terms of the tragedy, less is better. And at about 60,000 dead, that’s still a huge tragedy. But from the perspective of a researcher I have to wonder, why is it that the Haitian Government, the international humanitarian sector, the US government and the most powerful international institution on earth--the UN--feel compelled to ignore the obvious and inflate one of the greatest disasters in the history of the world by a factor of about 600 percent. Do the think they no one would have cared? Or was something else at stake?