Economic crimes against humanity

Who did more damage: his army or his economists?

Who did more damage: his army or his economists?

Mike Smith over at’s Global Health Blog, discusses the long-term damage that Robert Mugabe’s regime has inflicted on the Zimbabwean health system.

It’s a good reminder that, while we’ve often been fixated on the brutality of Mugabe’s political repression, it is the economic and social changes he has brought to his country that have done the most damage: life expectancy has collapsed, maternal and infant mortality rates have skyrocketed; the country’s ability to feed itself has vanished and any skilled worker with enough brains and cash to leave has done so (which must account for a portion of the life-expectancy drop).

Thanks to the adoption of the ill-conceived power-sharing agreement it now seems highly unlikely that Robert Mugabe will be punished for his thuggish grip on power and the multitude of human rights abuses that resulted. This is a shame, although perhaps a necessary evil. Let’s imagine that he was up for prosecution – what would be considered his greater crime: his abuse of power or public policy? Or is it the interaction of the two that made the difference?

When politicians play fair (which admittedly isn’t very often) the electoral mechanism tends to work well enough. It is far from perfect at picking the best policies, but it’s not bad at chucking out those who embrace disastrous policies. This should be an encouraging thought: functioning democracies (recall that democracies are more than just elections) will ditch ruinous policies. Those of you that are now thinking wistfully of awful decisions made by your own governments should reconsider your perspective: Mugabe effectively destroyed his own country.

Since the amazing fiasco that was the indictment of Sudanes president Omar al-Bashiri I’ve become quite skeptical of the international community’s ability to credibly police bad heads-of-state. For fun, let’s suspend our skepticism for a moment and consider adding a new crime to our list: economic crimes against humanity.

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court states that crimes against humanity are:

…are particularly odious offenses in that they constitute a serious attack on human dignity or grave humiliation or a degradation of one or more human beings. They are not isolated or sporadic events, but are part either of a government policy (although the perpetrators need not identify themselves with this policy) or of a wide practice of atrocities tolerated or condoned by a government or a de facto authority.

This seems to fit nicely with ZANU-PF’s kamikaze monetary policy, and inability to provide a functioning state.

One would need to be careful to define what an “economic crime” was, as it could very easily be an ideologically-driven label. I think there should be two main triggers before we even began considering candidates:

  1. Firstly, there should be significantly large losses in human welfare, or reasonable losses in potential gains in human welfare (I’ll explain this for a moment). For example, an aggregate drop in life expectancy by 10 years is a significant loss; a recession is not.
  2. The leader in question must be in power for undemocratic reasons. If he (or she) decides to ruin the country and is continuously elected in a free and fair manner, then fine.

The point of condition 1 is so we only consider grave economic crimes – the ones that do not result from small policy mistakes. The last thing we would want to do is discourage light risk-taking: it’s important that countries, especially emerging economies, experiment and “feel” or “muddle” their way through development. I think we should also consider obstructing gains in welfare as a crime, although perhaps only at the lower level. This should apply to places that are a “failure to thrive” when there are obvious potential gains in welfare. A great example of this is Equatorial Guinea – a dirt-poor country which struck oil in the early 90s and now has a per capita GDP somewhere between $15-35k, most of which has ended up in international bank accounts of its crook of a president Teodoro Obiang and his cronies.

The second point is also partly meant to guard against discouraging experimentation: if the electoral mechanism is working (as well as the other necessary institutions for a semi-functioning democracy), then experimentation is rewarded or punished accordingly. It would also prevent leaders from being accused ex-post: democracies, for better or for worse, often ditch their leaders before the true effects of their policies are known. I’d rather we focus our attention on not all of those that made mistakes, but those that made mistakes, were faced with the consequences, and stuck by them, despite evidence to the contrary.

Besides Mr. Mugabe, where might there also be candidates for economic crimes against humanity?

6 thoughts on “Economic crimes against humanity

  1. Andy

    October 16, 2009 at 9:40am

    Not a bad idea, though you’d need to toss in half the 70s/80s IMF staff role in there.

    1) Significantly large losses in human welfare? Check.

    2) In power for undemocratic reasons? Check.

    What would be considered [their] greater crime: [their] abuse of power or public policy? Or is it the interaction of the two that made the difference?

  2. Andy

    October 16, 2009 at 9:41am

    Whoops – “staff roll”, I mean.

  3. Ranil Dissanayake

    October 16, 2009 at 12:52pm

    Well, IMF members (almost all UN member-states) have voting powers, so in a sense it is a democracy, though it’s still skewed away from the ideal constituency from a development point of view. Plus, you can leave the IMF, if you want, just so long as you repay loans etc.

  4. Matt

    October 16, 2009 at 3:55pm

    Andy, the potential negative effects from “Washington Consensus” reforms (which is more the 80s and the early 90s) are difficult to measure. I’m talking about really massive welfare losses. The IMF wouldn’t have been in a clear position to understand the magnitude of their mistakes until after the reforms got less popular anyway. To commit an economic crime against humanity, the evidence has to be in your face (although many could argue that Mugabe probably *does* thing the West is causing all the economic troubles in Zimbabwe).

    Plus the reforms were not technically mandatory, countries could refuse them (and the aid), even if they weren’t always in a great position to do so.

  5. Andy

    October 17, 2009 at 1:34am

    I would suggest that the aggregate welfare loss from structural adjustment programmes is of comparable magnitude (in fact much higher) to what has happened in Zim.

    IMF policy during this period was blunt, speculative and ideological, and pursued long after it became demonstrably harmful. Also comparable with Zim.

    Democratic? Only in the very loosest sense of the term. Power dynamics within the IMF, as you know, are very different to its official voting structure, which is already flawed.

    “Not technically mandatory” loans: given to governments that had no clear capacity for effective spending, many of which were undemocratic and highly corrupt.

    A catastrophic failure in its mandated role, at the very least.

    (Please don’t take this as my jumping on the IMF=exploitative capitalism bandwagon. I think the failures should be punishable precisely because they happened in such a necessary institution.)

  6. Ranil Dissanayake

    October 19, 2009 at 6:48am

    Andy – I didn’t think you were on that bandwagon at all. I’m not a big fan of the fund. but this really gets to the heart of the problem with the idea (which Matt realises is unworkable) – the motivations are extremely difficult to gauge, and that’s important given that economics is not an exact science (or not a science at all). That’s why 1) there has to be a pretty direct link between the economic policy and the suffering and 2) there can’t be any way to vote the policy out.

    And yes, the IMF’s political dynamic is FUBAR from the developing country pov.

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