A note about Venezuela’s “humanitarian crisis”

A “humanitarian crisis” has no exact definition. Greece remains better off than the vast majority of countries in the world despite going through a Great Depression level of collapse for several years which many enraged Greeks call a humanitarian crisis. I would not tell Greeks that it’s wrong to describe what they’re going through that way even though, by the UN’s most recently released Human Development Index (HDI) data, Greece ranks 29th best out of 188 countries. HDI is a composite measure that takes into account life expectancy, education and national income.

However, Venezuela’s severe economic crisis has been described as a humanitarian crisis by OAS chief Luis Almagro and others as a way to justify foreign intervention. It is presumed that living conditions have deteriorated in Venezuela far below what is generally seen in the region, so that even the likes of Peru’s president – from a country poorer than Venezuela – feels entitled to demand that Venezuela take orders from others. This line of attack is combined with another: labelling Venezuela a “dictatorship”. Lucas Kroener just wrote a fine piece addressing that charge and I also wrote a short piece about that here.

Venezuela ranked 71rst out of 188 countries in the world in 2015 by HDI. But how bad are living conditions in Venezuela compared to the rest of the region?

The table below shows several Latin American countries ranked by HDI. I listed the major South American Countries plus Mexico because it is one of the countries that has helped with Almagro’s campaign against Venezuela. The ranking for the year 2015 is based on statistics the UN just released, the most recent it has.


A popular talking point in the western media has been that when Hugo Chavez first took office, in 1999, Venezuela was the “richest country in South America” but is now “one of the poorest”. That talking point is based on using GDP per capita adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP). In 1999, Venezuela was indeed the second richest country in South America by that measure, but Venezuela also had a 50% poverty rate at that time. When Venezuela is ranked by HDI it was nowhere near being the best off when Chavez first took office. By 2013, the year Chavez died, Venezuela had improved its HDI ranking drastically.

Since 2013, Venezuela’s HDI has been moving in the wrong direction. Credible estimates for Venezuela’s economy indicate that 2016 was far worse for Venezuela’s HDI than 2015. In the table below I extrapolated the negative trend for Venezuela to 2016 by taking into account that real GDP per capita contacted 18% in 2016 compared to a total of 12% in the two year period before 2016. A 12% contraction in real GDP per capita produced 0.52% fall in HDI. I therefore extrapolated that an 18% contraction in real GDP per capita produced a 0.79% fall in HDI.  I extrapolated the positive trends for other countries since 2013 to 2016 by assuming a constant percentage improvement over that period. As shown below, it is unlikely Venezuela’s HDI ranking compared to the others has dropped more than one spot.


[Countries are listed above from greatest to least extrapolated HDI value for 2016]

People should see a really big problem with humanitarian intervention being demanded, not on the basis of relative need, but on the basis of who the USA considers the bad guy in the world.

Incidentally, I wrote last year about a positive (i.e. non-belligerent, non-interventionist) attempt to offer advice to Venezuela about economic policy. It was detailed proposal drafted by a special team of economists put together by UNASUR. It was ignored by the international media. The economist who led the team, Francisco Rodriguez, was attacked by people in the Venezuelan opposition for helping the “dictatorship”. For some the priority is clearly to bring down the government by any means possible, not alleviating any “humanitarian crisis”.

1 comment

  1. Lary Fuku May 18, 2017 6:10 pm 

    You tell’em Joe.

    Everyone knows that when 70% of population is loosing 19% of their weight, it’s not a humanitarian crisis of mass starvation, but a new progressive initiative of staying healthy and fit by cutting down calorie intake.

    Another progressive initiative coming soon, a significant reduction in population, to reduce Venezuela’s carbon foot print!

Leave a comment