Cry, the beloved country

By Megan McArdle

Hilzoy writes, of the disaster that is Zimbabwe's economy:

The BBC quotes Robertson as saying: "I just wonder when they will try and reverse the laws of gravity, because this does not work." It's a pity Mugabe doesn't seem to realize that.

Last January, I posted a compilation of catastrophes that had befallen Zimbabwe during the previous week or two: doctors and teachers on strike, water shortages, sewage treatment plants crumbling, people unable to go to work because the bus fare was too expensive, upper- and middle-class Zimbabweans resorting to urban gardening in desperation: you name it. Since then, things have gotten much, much worse, and yet somehow, mysteriously, the government is holding on.

Sometime, something will have to give; I only hope that whoever replaces Mugabe when it does has some shred of concern for the Zimbabwean people, who have suffered enormously.



How enormously? Mugabe is not only politically illiberal and corrupt; he is literally a textbook case illustration of how to ruin an economy. I channel Izzy Mutanhaurwa:

3. In 1997 the economy peaked at US$8.5 billion, exports at US$3.4 billion and employment at 1.4 million. At that stage we were: -

a. The largest exporter of tobacco in the world after the USA.

b. The sixth largest producer of gold.

c. The biggest market for South Africa in Africa.

d. The second largest economy in the region and with the third highest GDP per capita.

e. Life expectancy was about 60 years and we had a literacy rate of 85 per cent with 95 per cent of all children of school going age in school.

f. Inflation was 12 per cent.

g. The exchange rate was 12 to 1 against the US dollar.


Zimbabwe today has an economy that has shrunk by half to just over US$4 billion, exports by two thirds to US$1.4 billion. Employment has declined by 45 per cent and industry by 60 per cent. Agricultural output this year will be 70 per cent down on the level achieved in 1997. Mining output is down and falling rapidly. Tourist arrivals have fallen from over 1.2 million in 1997 to less than 300,000 this year.

Life expectancy has halved, income per capita has also declined substantially. National population has fallen from an anticipated 16 or 17 million to just over 10 million today with 4 million Zimbabweans outside the country and some 2 to 3 million incremental deaths over and above normal mortality. 60 per cent of all children are not in school and all State controlled institutions are in dire straights.

For a country not at war or under sanctions, these are the most precipitous declines in economic and social welfare ever witnessed. They represent a calamitous state of affairs with no sign of any resumption of either stability or recovery. In fact the decline has accelerated in recent months very dramatically.

The US dollar is now trading at 20 million old Zimbabwe dollars to one in the open market compared to 1 to 2 in 1980 and 12 to 1 in 1997. Nothing tells you more about the collapse in the economy than that single statistic.



If Robert Mugabe had set out with the deliberate goal of trashing his country's economy, he could hardly have been more effective. You might say he's pioneered his own field: undevelopment economics. Starting with a disastrous land reform that placed land into the hands of political cronies, rather than those who knew anything about farming, or needed sustenance, he has turned a huge net food exporter into a net importer . . . when they can get the hard currency to import. Each successive foolhardy economic policy, designed to cover up some of the problems that have sprung up due to his last terrible, horrible, no good, very bad economic idea, has made things hideously worse. He has brought on hyperinflation, decimated the country's financial system and industrial base, crippled its agricultural output, mired the government in unrepayable debt, and reduced virtually all of his citizens to appalling poverty.

All of which prompts Brad DeLong to say:

Thabo Mbeki to the white courtesy phone, please. A Security Council resolution and an OAU resolution placing Robert Mugabe under the Ban of the Globe would, I think, be very welcome right now.



Unfortunately, though I have no better idea, I can't see how this can do much good. Zimbabwe is already effectively economically isolated due to the currency market controls that have left its economy functionally bereft of other currency. I doubt that the kleptocrats hve much left to steal and ship to their Swiss bank accounts. Making the gesture is better than doing nothing, but I fear that the only real end will be when Zimbabwe collapses into utter chaos.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2007/09/cry-the-beloved-country/1850/