Another day, another award for Zimbabwe: '2nd poorest country globally'

Jun 29, 2011

Is this a new day? Then surely someone somewhere is cooking up another award for Zimbabwe. Indeed; this time it is the announcement by an American magazine that Zimbabwe is the "second poorest country in the world."

 In the olden days when Zimbabwe won many international accolades in areas such as agriculture, health provision, education and literacy and so forth, no one questioned if these awards were deserved or asked what the deciding criteria were. It is therefore a little strange that Zimbabweans are quick to automatically dismiss the avalanche of negative 'awards' that are coming the country's way.   

Recently the UN's Human Development Index said Zimbabwe was second lowest after DRCongo. Then an American NGO said Zimbabwe was number 6 on its Failed States Index. The poverty ranking by Global Finance magazine is therefore the third bit of bad news about how Zimbabwe is perceived in influential global circles.   

The magazine says its rankings are based on Gross Domestic Product at Purchasing Power Parity, which  "compares generalized differences in living standards on the whole between nations because PPP takes into account the relative cost of living and the inflation rates of countries."

According to Global Finance's calculations, Zimbabwe's GDP-PPP per capita in 2010 was US$365, with only the DRCongo lower at US$342. Of the bottom 25 countries, only Afghanistan and Mynmar were outside Africa.

The state-owned Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation was quick to find commentators to defend the country's honor.

One said, "the country with its vast mineral resource base and increased investments over the past few months makes it one of the most improved economies in the world."

Another said, " the report is a mere piece of Western propaganda."

Yet another analyst said Zimbabwe "with its vast mineral resource base and increased investments over the past few months makes it one of the most improved economies in the world, contrary to the dubious Global Finance Magazine Report."

The defensiveness is entirely understandable, though perhaps un-necessary. it is possible to examine the criteria of all these 'awards' and quibble about whether Zimbabwe should really be at the bottom. But while keeping inmind that all these rankings are very broad and generalised comparisons of national well-being, the central point they all make is one Zimbabweans have experience and knowledge: that in the last few years their country has not been doing well. regardless of what specific number it should or should not rank on this or that index.

Many of those who dismiss these rankings do so by pointing to Zimbabwe's potential (minerals, land, etc) and its economic stabilisation in the last two years.

Firstly, none of these rankings are concerned about measuring potential, but rather the relative effectiveness with which countries actually realise their potential to result in better social and economic conditions for the citizens. Whatever your favourite flavour of explanation for why this is the case, certainly Zimbabwe has lost a tremendous amount of ground in these regards in recent years.

Secondly, all the current negative rankings are necessarily based on data collected over the past year or more, so that a 2011 ranking is largely based on what happened in 2009/2010. The ongoing improvements that Zimbabweans point to will slowly begin to be reflected in improved rankings according to various criteria in the coming months and years.         

It must also be remembered how divorced from the life of the person on the street figures such as GDP can be. More diamond and other mineral revenue will increase the country's GDP, but it quite possible to substantially do that with very little improvement in the overall conditions of most citizens, as is the case in many oil-producing African countries. It is possible to have an abstract kind of growth which does not benefit the citizens much because of the the quality of political leadership;  how it decides how to allocate any income generated from increased revenue. It is possible that Zimbabwe will creep up in some rankings as economic activity creeps up while staying low in other rankings because most citizens are not benefiting from that economic upturn.

The defensiveness over being found near bottom by so many measures of national performance may be understandable, but a more practically useful reaction would be for Zimbabweans to press for things to get better in their country. Not for improved rankings but for the sake of their own well-being. The improved global rankings would be merely a perk that would naturally follow.


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