Friday, October 23, 2009

Another Nice Example of Moral Manipulation

Sam Kiley of the British paper The Times, illustrates in this article an example of moral manipulation when it comes to procuring aid for Africa.

Aid organisations and the media have inflated the scale of subsequent horror, regardless of the truth. This year the International Rescue Committee released data from its Democratic Republic of the Congo mortality survey. “Congo’s war and aftermath have killed 5.4 million,” The Washington Post yelled, quoting the IRC. Humbug.

The IRC isn’t deliberately lying, neither was the Post. But the idea that 5.4 million people have died as a result of war in Congo is nonsense. It needs to be peddled to help to generate funds to relieve the real and hideous suffering of Congo’s population, but nonsense it remains. As the IRC admits: “Less than 10 per cent of all deaths were due to violence, with most attributed to easily preventable and treatable conditions such as malaria, diarrhoea, pneumonia and malnutrition.”

The IRC is saying, really, that the Congolese are dying because they are poor. Recent work by AndrĂ© Lambert and Louis LohlĂ©-Tart shows that the rising mortality rate predates the wars there. But combine “war’’ with “millions dead’’ and you have a donation-winning headline We all do it. We use statistics to highlight the horrors in Africa to drive home the unbelievable scale of the continent’s problems. But that’s the problem: the scale has become unbelievable. Twenty-three million? From my experience of two decades’ reporting from Africa, I can say with absolute confidence that this is humbug. Did anyone count them? No.

Here in lies the problem with making a moral plea. If at first you don't succeed at sufficiently manipulating people's behavior, exaggerate. Employ some shock and awe. The flip side, as he states is that the numbers become unbelievable. When we exaggerate a moral claim, we risk that our audience rejects us carte blanche. Instead of realizing that we are exaggerating they will think we are wrong. So lunacy becomes acceptable and the truth becomes offensive.

P.S. Go back and read the article, because he does make some solid points about the use of food aid in Africa.

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