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Human rights and economic development

By Dr Alex T Magaisa

THE subject at the centre of this week’s article is whether human rights matter in economic development.



>In most economic analyses there seems to be a preoccupation with digits and models without taking into account the social impact of policies on the people.


One of the leading scholars of welfare economics, Armatya Sen, a Nobel Laureate in Economics (1998), has for a long time argued that the availability and expansion of freedoms defines development while simultaneously providing the means for its achievement.


I intend to use this line of thought to argue that the protection of human rights is an essential part and means of achieving economic development.

As Sen points out, the usual economic indicators such as “GDP”, “GNP”, or “income per capita” do not accurately capture or reflect the things that really matter to the people.


Rather, the things that matter are the freedoms and rights that people are entitled to. These freedoms include civil and political rights, as well as social and economic rights. This is relevant in the context of Zimbabwe, where all too often figures are presented to demonstrate “economic turnaround” without the necessary focus on the freedoms that are a key part of development.


To pose a rhetorical question: what good is a low rate of inflation when people cannot enjoy the freedom to express themselves or the right to the protection of the law or indeed to receive adequate health care?


In my view, without the necessary protection of fundamental freedoms, any hopes of economic recovery and prosperity will remain distant dreams.

Human rights are legal entitlements for all human beings. Most human rights are guaranteed and protected under international conventions between states. States undertake to guarantee and protect such rights to the citizens and most constitutions include a Bill of Rights which contains the relevant rights.


Human rights have assumed a high profile at both national and international levels. It is generally argued and accepted that democracy provides the most conducive environment for the protection and enjoyment of human rights.


Human rights enable individual citizens to engage and participate fully within society without constraints.


In terms of production, a human being is at his best when he is capable of pursuing his goals in an environment which offers him the opportunity to think and act freely.


When such rights are curtailed and people live in fear it is highly unlikely that they can think freely, innovate and engage in useful work. Their main priority is compliance with authority and safeguarding their welfare.


The fear of annoying those in authority restricts their freedom to think and engage in otherwise productive work. Indeed when the right to ownership is properly protected, citizens are more likely to put that property to its most productive and efficient use because they know that their rights are protected.


In addition, the lack of adequate protection of the rights of certain groups in society essentially makes them dormant and inefficient for purposes of economic development. This is particularly true in the case of women, who despite accounting for more than half the population remain at the margins of the economic arena.


As Sen points out, the lack of proper protection of the rights of women means that their full potential cannot be fully realised.


The same applies to the exclusion of persons on grounds of political affiliation.


A large section of the productive and innovative population is likely to remain incapable of contributing to development simply because their rights are inadequately protected by reason of their political allegiance. The ideas and industry of the millions of young men and women are now invested in other countries simply because there is inadequate protection of human rights in most African countries.


If a conducive environment were created, there is a high chance these people, whose talent and skill was nurtured in Africa, would actively participate in promoting development.


Indeed, the experience they have gained in the diaspora would be of great use upon return. India is an example of a country that has benefited greatly from its programmes of nurturing and retaining talent by promoting a democratic environment in which free thought and industrial endeavour is tolerated. Instead, in Africa we are preoccupied with short-term policies of how to tap foreign currency from those in the diaspora.


The “Homelink” policy should be about bringing back the skills and expertise of the Zimbabweans in the diaspora but in order to achieve this, many would argue that a conducive environment has to be created.


Zimbabwe needs its doctors, pharmacists, engineers, accountants, lawyers, nurses and teachers to advance the welfare of its society but as long as the perception of a poor human rights culture and climate persists, the losses will continue.


No amounts of foreign currency can fill the gap left by these people. It may be politically expedient to castigate those in the diaspora but a more principled approach requires self-critical analyses to understand why such a huge labour force has migrated and how it can be persuaded to return.


The protection of the freedom of expression is fundamental to a free media. According to Sen, famines which can be man-made phenomena can be prevented or the effects may be minimised if there is a sufficiently free press to expose the problems and alert the state.


Information and ideas spread easily and faster where there is free exchange. Indeed the international community also reacts when the information is brought into the public domain.


Often the state-controlled press may fail to expose the shortcomings of the state and the desire to give good impressions clouds their judgement and compromises coverage. The independent media can play a crucial role in exposing those aspects which may be useful to highlight and prevent problems.


In addition, a free media plays a crucial role in exposing economically detrimental activities such as corruption.


In Zimbabwe, the prime example of the press playing a key role was the exposure of the Willowgate scandal in 1989 by the then editor of the Chronicle, Geoff Nyarota.


Over the years, the press has played a key role in highlighting issues that require urgent attention. Without the protection of the freedom of expression it is hard to envisage how corruption by influential figures can ever be exposed.


By helping to combat corruption and related crimes, it is clear that the protection and enjoyment of human rights is crucial in economic development.


As indicated earlier, the protection of human rights has become a generally accepted norm in international law.


Countries that fail to protect human rights are generally castigated and receive bad press which causes a diminution in goodwill. Globalisation has meant that the world is a smaller place where information about violations spreads rapidly.


Lack of human rights protection is perceived as being synonymous with instability and lack of safety. People invest their resources where their rights are secure.


Consequently, countries perceived to be human rights violators are shunned by investors and receive very little foreign direct investment and goodwill-dependent industries like tourism suffer.


A country that fails to attract investment cannot manage to compete internationally because it is considered to have high levels of political risk.

The “image factor” is certainly important and without a strong human rights protection regime, economic development will be severely affected.

Zimbabwe has already seen the negative effects given the poor levels of investment and the low numbers of tourists due to a negative human rights’ image.


No amount of advertising or beauty pageants can recreate Zimbabwe’s image without adequate attention to its human rights’ regime. Zimbabwe may not be the worst human rights violator in the world but that does not excuse us for our failures.


It is now generally accepted that human rights are not only important for economic development but that their enjoyment is a necessary demonstration and part of that development.


It is all very well to rant about figures of inflation and GDP as a demonstration of economic recovery but reality requires that men and women enjoy their rights which matter to them in their daily lives. They must be able to read newspapers of their choice, watch television that interests them, engage in public debate and express their views and ideas, meet at any place and time without unreasonable constraints.


Human rights and economic development are closely connected. It was heartening to note the governor of the RBZ mentioning in his last monetary policy statement that property rights would receive better protection. I want to believe he realises the significance of human rights in his programme of economic recovery. Given his platform and influence, one hopes he will continue to say more and do more about it.


He ought to — it is very important within the context of and for the realisation of his “economic turnaround” policies.


*Dr Alex T Magaisa is the Baker & Mckenzie lecturer in corporate law at The University of Nottingham. Contact at alex.magaisa@nottingham.ac.uk

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