Past Research: Professor Roberts’ past work has focused on two areas—1) problems associated with inadequate water and sanitation facilities, and 2) the effects of forced migration and conflict on human health. Roberts has conducted over 30 mortality surveys in the midst of raging conflict and has designed and taken part in four randomized trials of water or hygiene interventions in refugee settlements. His studies have provided the basis for significant, life-saving interventions. For example, his study of a Malawian refugee camp showed that water contamination came from the hands of refugees. UNHCR responded to these findings by adopting a global policy calling for vessels with a narrow neck or spigot. As a result, millions of displaced persons and refugees today have a more sanitary and protective water vessel. His mortality surveys have also been innovative, using GPS-based sampling to measure mortality. Summaries of his mortality work have appeared on the front pages of the New York Times and Washington Post. Within a week of the publication of a series of mortality surveys in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in 2000, a UN resolution was passed calling for the five invading armies to be withdrawn.
Present Research: At present, Roberts is undertaking a study to determine the influence of loss of housing on child survival. His research also addresses the level of mortality among the Iraqi population in the course of the war in the past four years. Also in Iraq, he is developing and implementing innovative interviews to estimate the incidence of rape. It is hoped that this method will enable rape and violence prevention programs to evaluate their effectiveness, a serious limitation at present. He has also led an effort to do a semi-quantitative capture-recapture study assessing media coverage of civilian deaths in Iraq by phone and e-mail interviews with people in Iraq.
Future Research: Beginning in 2001, Roberts had presented evidence suggesting that the widely used Crude Mortality Rate is an inferior measure of human suffering and should be replaced by the birth-to-death ratio, a more sensitive and meaningful measure that is also easier to quantify in chaotic settings. In Bosnia and the Congo, Roberts had shown that birth rates go down in times of conflict, while the death rates go up. He plans to continue his research on the sensitivity and specificity of different “suffering” measures in the coming years. Moreover, he is interested in expanding the methods and applications of population surveillance to the area of human rights abuses. At present, most human rights complaints and cases involve the reporting of incidents. Yet, Roberts believes that patterns of incidence more meaningfully describe the scale and relative importance of violations. If patterns of rape and murder can be used as evidence of wrongdoing, the ease and ability of displaying—and perhaps preventing—these crimes will be increased.
60 Haven Avenue, B-2
New York, New York 10032