Sunday, November 21, 2004

# Posted 1:16 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

IRAQ -- "MALNUTRITION NEARLY DOUBLE WHAT IT WAS BEFORE INVASION": That the headline from today's WaPo. Naturally, the conclusion that malnutrition has doubled depends on the uncritical comparison of statistics compiled while Saddam was in power with those compiled more recently.

Just as naturally, the WaPo never makes this point explicitly and never suggests that the older statistics might be questionable. According to the article's second sentence,
After the rate of acute malnutrition among children younger than 5 steadily declined to 4 percent two years ago, it shot up to 7.7 percent this year.
Considerably later on, we find out that:
International aid efforts and the U.N. oil-for-food program helped reduce the ruinous impact of sanctions, and the rate of acute malnutrition among the youngest Iraqis gradually dropped from a peak of 11 percent in 1996 to 4 percent in 2002.
I do believe that the oil-for-"food" program improved nutrition for Iraqi children. Corruption at the UN may have been pervasive, but it seems that most of the money still went for food. But why should I attribute any credibility to pseudo-statistics such as the 11 and 4 percent malnutrition figures?

Before continuing with my criticism of the Post, I think it is worth point out that malnutrition rates in Iraq are apalling, regardless of whether they are higher or lower than they were before the invasion. As the Post points out,
Iraq's child malnutrition rate now roughly equals that of Burundi, a central African nation torn by more than a decade of war. It is far higher than rates in Uganda and Haiti.
So no one should pretend that this isn't problem. But why is this problem on the front page of the Washington Post? Because the problem is supposedly America's fault.

Even so, the Post does illustrate that some of this fault is indirect. For example, one apparent cause for the rise of malnutrition (and the widespread lack of health care) in Iraq is the fact that violence has forced relief workers out of the country. The United Nations, Doctors Without Borders and CARE International have all left the country.

While the Post does mention the specific incidents -- "a truck bombing", a "director...was kidnapped" -- that led these agencies to haul anchor, it never connects the dots to make an obvious point: that the insurgents have deliberately sought to increase the misery of the Iraqi people by violently attacking those who seek to make their lives better.

UDPATE: Reader OV points to this UNICEF study of malnutrition in Iraq which also reports that 7.7% of Iraqi children suffer from acute malnourishment. The problem is that this UNICEF study was conducted less than three weeks after the invasion of Iraq.

This raises a lot of questions. Were two different studies conducted, one last year and one this year? If so, then the malnutrition rate has remained essentially stable since the US invasion of Iraq -- and the increase from 4 to 7.7 percent was Saddam's doing.

Or are the two studies one and the same? Both were conducted by Iraq's Ministry of Health with help from the United Nations. If the two studies are the same, then the earlier date (April-May 2003) is presumably the correct one. The political implications of such a scenario are the same as above.

Finally, did the WaPo simply get confused and report on last year's study as if it were new? I'd put my money on that one. Even so, if any of these three scenarios is correct, then the entire thrust of the Post's article is very, very wrong.

UPDATE: Both this UN press release as well as this one confirm that the 7.7% figure was publicly available by May of 2003. One should note, however, that it applies only to Baghdad.

UPDATE: The WaPo identified two organizations as having worked with the Iraqi Ministry of Health to conduct the nutrition survey. They are Norway's Institute for Applied International Studies and the UN Development Program. Both IAIS and UNDP have webpages devoted to Iraq, but neither seems to have information about the malnutrition statistics.
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