Sadly, over the course of the past few decades, exaggeration seems to have become the rule in the world of humanitarian relief. The Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004, which is generally believed to have killed almost a quarter of a million people in 14 countries, is a stark example. In the immediate aftermath, NGOs and U.N. agencies were predicting that without massive aid, the death toll would double because of hunger, lack of clean water, and the spread of infectious disease. Their appeals were extraordinarily successful, raising more than $14 billion from governments, corporations, and a remarkably large number of private donors. And yet, there was little basis for such anxiety: The general rule in natural disasters such as tsunamis and earthquakes is that most fatalities occur in the first 24 hours. The mismatch between the vast sums of money raised globally for tsunami relief and the real needs on the ground was so extreme that Doctors Without Borders soon began returning contributions, while Oxfam diverted funds to other crises. But this did not stop the U.N. from taking credit — on what basis, no one could quite say — for having prevented a second wave of deaths.
The culture of shameless embellishment never seems to dissipate for long. Here is Elisabeth Byrs, the spokeswoman for the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, speaking in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Jan. 12, 2010: “This is a historic disaster,” she said. “We have never been confronted with such a disaster in the U.N. memory. It is like no other.” Let’s be clear: This is not the compassionate rhetoric of solidarity, but advertising hype. It’s bigger, sadder, worse! The fact that those who dispense such misinformation mean well does not lessen the distortion.