“The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic”

All too often in development, we relegate the people we are meant to help to mere numbers.

Through quantification of the individual, we come to ignore the complexities of the unique women, men and children that they are. We come to gloss over their stories, and their worth to their families and communities. In research, this can be quite dangerous. Reducing human beings to statistics removes from our view the nuances of situational hardships and, in effect, over-rationalizes our decision-making process as an industry and as people.

While conducting a robust community needs assessment across our local health sub-district in Jinja this year, we wanted to avoid this very pitfall, deeming it counterproductive to any potential community interventions. This shortcoming is perpetuated by Uganda’s Health Management Information System (HMIS), which only provides maternal health data on women who participate in the health system (attending ANC visits, delivering in a health facility, etc.) while leaving out any information on the countless women who choose not to visit a health center for their maternal health needs. We focused heavily on qualitative methodologies, garnering inspiring stories of tenacity and resilience from women doing the best they can with a severely broken health system.

Though even our more nuanced data – through extensive data cleaning, coding and synthesis into a report intended to advocate for the needs of this under-represented population and inform the design of an antenatal education center in Bujagali – ultimately reduced individual experience to collectively aggregated generalizations in order to understand the extent of any given challenge to maternal health in the region.

This unfortunate process is part of the very same fallacy that leads donors to focus only on the numbers of beneficiaries their funding is directly impacting. This focus on people as numbers keeps donors and the general public in the dark about those that do not benefit from a program. Here in Bujagali, two small international organizations work diligently to provide education and health services to this community, but here you see a perpetuation of inequalities, where some families make the cut for student sponsorship and pre-primary enrollment and some do not.

It is much easier for the development industry to view human beings in this way, as numbers, as statistics. When we do not have to hear about those who fail to receive assistance from our programmatic efforts, we can sleep soundly knowing that at least “someone” is benefiting.

This seems to be part of the same fundamental flaw in the human psyche that makes it far easier for the masses to digest quantified calamities than to accept the suffering of an individual.

As Stalin decreed, “the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.”

I have no solutions to this conundrum, nor do I try to espouse any alternative, other than to stress the importance of listening, of honoring the individual in whatever way we can, of not simply writing human lives off as negotiable losses. Easier said than done it seems, especially considering limited resources to address ostensibly limitless problems throughout the developing world. But at what point does our quantification and decision-making descend into a world where we spit in the face of our collectively manifested moral compass? SMBC Comics this week illustrates it best:

1439737725-20150816From http://smbc-comics.com/index.php?id=3831