Aid agencies challenged by rise in conflict death toll

by Peter Apps, Executive Director, Project for Study Of the 21st Century
Wednesday, 18 March 2015 13:35 GMT

A man carries a child, injured by what activists said were barrel bombs dropped by warplanes loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in Aleppo's al-Shaar neighborhood November 6, 2014. REUTERS/Rami Zayat

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Study finds 28 pct more deaths in top 20 conflicts last year

As head of the new think tank the Project for Study of the 21st Century, one of my first projects has been to look at the conflict death toll in 2014 compared to the previous year – and the results are alarmingly stark – presenting aid agencies globally with an enormous challenge.

Our analysis of the top 20 bloodiest wars last year found they killed more than 28 percent more than the top 20 conflicts a year earlier - but of course the body count hardly reflects the humanitarian crises this has created.

Wartime body counts are a somewhat inexact science, as any ex-war reporter or human rights activist knows. We've used to the best available data we could find for each of the conflicts -- although that means each has used a somewhat different methodology. it was pretty clear last year that the world was not going well and every few weeks, it seemed, brought a new flareup in conflict from Iraq to Ukraine, Gaza to Nigeria. So if anything, the numbers are underestimated.

The bloodiest wars, Syria and Iraq, come as no surprise. Nor does Afghanistan at number three.

Nigeria, however, has soared up the list from sixth to fourth place as the death toll more than doubled to just over 11,500. Sudan and south Sudan have also seen death tolls rise -- indeed, if they were still the same country they would have supplanted Afghanistan for third place.

But the death toll for aid agencies is merely a symptom -- it's the living who remain the priority. And the living too are having a But the rougher time as well.

The two deadliest conflicts, Iraq and Syria, had already given the 21st century its worst refugee crises. In June last year, the UN refugee agency UNHCR announced those crises have helped push the total number of displaced about 50 million for the first time since the Second World War 

That fits with the broader data. Last year, the Australia and the US-based Institute for Economics and Peace Global Peace Index reported that global peace had declined each year since 2008, bucking a multi-decade improvement going back to 1945. 

The real problem for humanitarian agencies, though, is what is happening in terms of the dynamics within those conflicts. For foreign particularly humanitarian actors, they have become effective no-go zones.

That appears to have been a deliberate strategy by the groups involved. Another report last year by the Institute for Economics and Peace -- this time looking solely at militant attacks -- found that more than 60 percent of deaths were down to 4 groups. They were the Islamic State, Taleban, Nigeria's Boko Haram and various Al Qaeda affiliates.

(I should declare an interest here -- its founder and chairman Steve Killelea is one of the founding members of the International advisory group at PS21 -- but their work is truly excellent)

All four of those groups, of course, have waged a particular campaign against humanitarian agencies in part motivated by their deep opposition to Western style education and values. Starting with the attack on the UN compound in Baghdad in 2003, they have made it much, much harder for aid groups to operate.

The world, of course, is not as bad as all that. As Ali Wyne -- another PS21 global fellow -- writes this week for Huffington Post, for most of the world that has never been a better time to be alive. 

Even with the global financial crisis, the last decade and a half has seen a untold millions lifted out of poverty by economic growth particularly in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The more we really have to worry about is a small number of countries that are simply decoupling from the rest of the system. But there's more than that, unfortunately.

In Ukraine, we're seeing something very old-fashioned but also new in the 21st century -- a proper proxy war between superpowers are that, while definitely limited, seems still to be ratcheting up.


Executive Director, Project for Study Of the 21st Century (PS21)

On Sabbatical from Reuters where he is Global Defence Correspondent