Are there Perverse Incentives to Over-Report Rape in DRC?

In this month’s issue of Foreign Policy magazine, Enough Project blogger and media consultant Laura Heaton issues a damning reprisal to aid organizations working on rape in Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Heaton bases her Lords of Poverty-esque narrative on investigative journalism she conducted in Luvungi, South Kivu.   In August 2010, an attack on Luvungi by FDLR and Mai Mai rebels made headlines when the International Medical Corps (IMC) reported treating hundreds of rape victims, including women, children, and even infants.

Heaton argues that these numbers have been inflated by the IMC and other international organizations (including the UN) to fit with the ongoing rape narrative that has inspired increased aid to DRC.  According to the article, nearly 300 aid organizations working on sexual violence have been established in South Kivu since 2002.

Heaton argues that some of these groups have over-exaggerated the “rape capital of the world” in order to capitalize on funding from international donors.  However, her logic makes little sense when we consider actual incentives to over or under report rape.

The article suggests that the IMC team, headed by Will Cragin had an incentive to over-report rapes in order to capitalize on foreign aid.  However, as Cragan and his colleague Micah Williams explain in their rebuttal, IMC offers a range of services in the DRC and the funds they receive go to benefit the entire community.  They are not an NGO that specializes in sexual violence.  Their incentive to over-report is questionable as this would likely have been uncovered by subsequent investigations and tarnished their image among the international community and within the DRC.

Meanwhile, the final report by UN investigators – who had a conscious incentive to underreport rape because they failed to respond to the crisis in their back yard – indicates higher incidence of rape in Luvungi than the IMC had reported.   How does Heaton’s perverse incentives logic explain this?

As this blog has posted elsewhere, the methodology used by the UN and other international organizations is not necessarily any better than investigative journalism and certainly does not hold academic merit.  But the consistency in the findings across organizations is much more convincing than the findings of a single freelance writer who questions the legitimacy of testimonies of rape survivors because “a psychological element seemed to be missing.”

The women Heaton expressed skepticism of were picked by village elders to share their stories.  While it is possible that they were “coached” as Heaton’s colleague suggested, it is much more likely that these women had spoken with outsiders about their experiences several times before.  In addition to IMC activities, the UN conducted three different investigations in Luvungi following the attack.  Personal stories, even the most horrific ones, can become fluid narratives after several retellings, even sounding coached-like.

Heaton’s methodology, like most investigative journalists is unclear.  She does say that she made a visit in April 2011, in addition to two other trips which dates are unclear.  She does not divulge how much time she actually spent in Luvungi, what sort of prior contacts she had there, or the selection procedures and structure for her interviews.

From what we do know about Heaton’s methodology, her findings may be biased by her informants and her own personal observations.  The bulk of the evidence she presents on IMC’s erroneous reporting come from a source she herself sites as being displaced when the organization arrived on the scene.

“The health-care provider said he was then reassigned to the pharmacy, leaving the treatment of patients to the IMC staff,” Heaton writes.  Yet later this same health care worker is able to provide details that “the IMC registered every woman at the clinic as a victim of sexual violence, even those treated for other ailments; this, he said, included revising the log of the patients he had seen before IMC’s arrival.”

This is not to say that the healthcare worker’s insights are inaccurate.  However, there is reason to believe that he might have grievances with the IMC and that he might not have been a direct witness to the events he reported.  Heaton should have been more open to acknowledging this and the possibility of “hearsay” in her findings.

While the article does present flawed logic, biased reporting, and incomplete information, the overall theme is an important one.  International development and aid organizations do tend to structure their narratives to fit with prevailing trends in international aid flows.  While the substantive activities of organizations may remain relatively constant, proposals tend to adopt language that suits international donors political interests at the time.

Heaton’s article encourages better monitoring of international aid efforts and more accurate data collection and reporting from the field.   NGOs like IMC are often the first on the scene of a crisis, because their employees like Will Cragin and Micah Williams are willing to take risks to assist others.  Their actions are noble.  But noble actions are rarely enough to truly benefit the communities that international aid workers attempt to help.

Data collection and reporting can assist in long-term efforts at stability and sustainable development.  Organizations like IMC and the UN attempt to do this at varying degrees of reliability, within the constraints of an unstable context.

While perverse incentives can certainly lead organizations to falsely report, better monitoring from outside evaluators and more accurate data collection using independent consultants with clearly defined methodologies, can help reduce the possibility of inaccurate (whether intentional or unintentional) reporting.

***Disclaimer: I know Will Cragin of IMC personally, but have attempted to remain unbiased in my assessment of Laura Heaton’s article and IMC’s response to it.***

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