19 December 2012

How a Simple Blog Post on a UN Announcement Uncovered a Misleading Initiative

Earlier last week, the UN held an announcement regarding new funding towards eradicating cholera in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. I have been keeping tabs on the situation in Haiti because the evidence strongly points towards the UN peacekeepers as the source of the outbreak, but the UN has both neglected shoulder responsibility nor has it fully mobilized a response to the spread of cholera on the island.

I set out to read about the announcement a few days after it happened and write a post based on what was new with some clips of how people reacted. I knew that these announcements are met with strong responses, so it would make for an easy and interesting blog post.

The reports from the AP and Reuters indicated that the UN unveiled a $2.2 billion initiative. I went back to the press release and the statement from Secretary General Ban ki-Moon to get some quotes and further information for the post. Curiously, the UN information that was provided made no mention of $2.2 billion. I searched around and kept coming back to the reports in the news media about the numbers, but saw nothing else.

I used Twitter to ask around and finally pinged former AP reporter Jonathan Katz. He and I spoke awhile back about Haiti and have kept in touch regarding the ongoing response to the outbreak. He began digging around and confirmed my discovery. The UN did not launch a $2.2 billion initiative, it was announcing $23.5 million in new funding and the reallocation of $215 million from bilateral donors.

A bit more digging revealed that the language of the announcement likely misled news outlets and the UN did nothing to correct the error. Katz and I co-wrote an article that published in Foreign Policy yesterday that covers our findings and calls into question how the $2.2 billion initiative that will be announced in January by the UN is going to be funded.

Here is an excerpt:
In the 25 months since Vibrio cholerae El Torbacteria was confirmed in Haiti for the first time, 7,805 people have died, along more than 400 in the neighboring Dominican Republic. The waterborne pathogen has contaminated nearly every mountain village and barrio stream on the Caribbean island. Yet Ban told reporters at the event that eradicating the disease was a matter of will. "Science," the secretary-general explained, "tells us it can be done." 
This would have been the second surprise. Throughout the epidemic, science has been the last thing the U.N.'s political leaders have wanted to talk about. 
The crisis began in October 2010, when Haitians began dying en masse along the rural Artibonite River. As Haiti had no known history with cholera -- there had never been a confirmed case before -- suspicion quickly focused on the horrendous sanitation at a U.N. base. The installation was home to a detachment of Nepalese soldiers, next to one of the river's main tributaries. U.N. officials in Port-au-Prince actively tried to dismiss the claims as pernicious rumors while mounting a clandestine and amateurish investigation behind the scenes. Within days of the outbreak, stories in the international press already showed not only that the Haitian rumors about the base were true and that the U.N. was dissembling, but that the strain of cholera matched a current outbreak in Nepal. The soldiers had traveled from that outbreak to Haiti just before Haiti's epidemic began.
Read the whole article here

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