What’s in the numbers? When Mortality Figures in Armed Conflicts Fail to Tell the Whole Story

By Bethan Mathias and Ruben Brouwer

Abstract: On a programmatic as well as political level, mortality rates have become almost indispensable in guiding large-scale humanitarian operations in armed conflicts. These figures have, however, become too important, overly trusted, undisputed, and increasingly politicized. The objective of this paper is to consider the practical limitations and ethical implications of collecting and using mortality data in large-scale conflict operations. To meet this objective and drawing from conversations with practitioners, the authors examined a number of concrete issues that may influencedata collection. Furthermore, the authors analyzed the tendencies and motivations that lead to the misuse of mortality data. The paper hopes to contribute to unpacking the near-mythical nature attributed to mortality data and lead to a better understanding of its inherent limitations.

“Figures are not conclusive, you have to handle them with kid gloves” - Rony Brauman

About the Authors
Bethan Mathias holds a degree in History from the University of Cambridge and a Master's degree in Human Rights and Humanitarian Action from Sciences Po, Paris School of International Affairs. Her background is in migrant and refugee support work and she has since worked on humanitarian issues in conflict and displaced populations with Crisis Action and ActionAid International. She is currently producing a consultant research project for ActionAid that explores donor relationships in emergency humanitarian responses.

Ruben Brouwer holds a Master's degree in Public International Law from the University of Amsterdam and a Master's degree in International Security from Sciences Po, Paris School of International Affairs. Mr. Brouwer has previously worked on human rights and humanitarian issues in conflict situations with Human Rights Watch in New York, the Netherlands Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York, Search for Common Ground in Tanzania, and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) in Ghana. He is currently working for Peace One Day in London.

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