In this edition of the Auschwitz Institute podcast, Jared Knoll speaks with Jurgen Brauer and Charles Anderton about the role of economic factors in genocide and mass atrocities. Both of them have been instructors at the Auschwitz Institute’s Raphael Lemkin Seminar for Genocide Prevention. We spoke just two weeks before a panel at the World Bank on how to apply a mass atrocity prevention lens to economic development policy, co-organized and moderated by the Auschwitz Institute.
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Welcome, I’m Jared Knoll with the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation. Today we’re looking at an often-ignored element of genocide prevention: economics. Joining me to discuss this complex subject are Jurgen Brauer and Charles Anderton, two professors hoping to produce a handbook on the economics of genocide and mass killing. Both prolific authors, they work out of Georgia Regents University and Holy Cross College in Massachusetts, respectively, and have served as instructors for the Auschwitz Institute. Charles, Jurgen: Thanks for joining us today.
JB: Yes, thank you very much for the invitation. This is Jurgen Brauer. I appreciate the opportunity to talk about this.
CA: Jared, thank you very much for contacting us. We’re delighted to have the opportunity to share some thoughts.
Would you like to start by telling us a little about how you think we need to approach the ways economics and mass killing play into one another?
CA: Jurgen and I have been kind of going back and forth on what we see as critical interdependencies between genocide and mass killing, and economics. So we’ve highlighted several areas where they intersect, and one of those is that genocides and mass killings have huge economic consequences. A second way that they go together is that economic conditions, poverty and other types of economic conditions, are potentially risk factors for genocide and mass killing, and might affect the severity as well.
We also have seen cases, certainly the Holocaust and other cases, where there’s a kind of business organization to the genocide. They’re very systematic and they require leadership and logistics and coordination and hiring people to do certain terrible tasks that are involved. There’s a kind of business of genocide that needs to be better understood. And of course there’s looting that goes on in many genocides and mass killings, and that’s a form of wealth appropriation and a loss of wealth to the victims, and obviously security is undermined, and economists see security as a very fundamental service that every society should provide.
I think the last one that we thought about is this idea of genocides and mass killing being choices that people actually are choosing, are in some sense weighing costs and benefits when they’re thinking about perpetrating such things, and economics is a social science of people making choices. So those are the ways that we see the genocides and mass killings and economics being interdependent.
JB: What we would like to add, as we continue to think about the topic, is how one may use economics to generate insights into the prevention of genocide and mass killing. There’s an increasing amount of work done, several Nobel Prizes in fact have been awarded to think about how does one design a society, how does one design structures within which incentives for behavior are guided or changed to a beneficial social outcome, so that we avoid that which we do not want to have and foster that which we do want to have.
So do you perceive an omission or a gap in the literature and body of work in the economics of genocide and mass killing?
CA: There’s a need for multidisciplinary perspectives. We’re hoping to see economics step up and professional economists take more of a role in understanding genocides and mass killings. We think that the social psychologists, the historians, the sociologists, and the political scientists have been working really hard in this field for decades, but we economists have not really contributed what our share should be, in a sense.
Why do you think economic issues haven’t been tackled as much in academia, awareness campaigns and other efforts, compared to aspects of mass killing like social ideology, ethnic conflict, things like that?
JB: Well, I believe that part of it has to do with the public image of economics. Economics is about money, economics is about financial markets, economics is about the value of your home, economics is about how much money you get from your boss. But in fact the discipline of economics, I would say, money is 5 percent of what we do and the other 95 percent is really interesting stuff that the public doesn’t hear about. People ordinarily don’t think of economics as contributing to larger social issues beyond the finances of a household or a firm, or maybe the government. So I think it’s in part a perceptual issue. Economists over the years have made great contributions, in environmental economics, public policy, the evaluation of cost-benefit of, let’s say, publicly funded research and those sorts of things.
CA: The textbooks in economics focus on production and exchange and consumption, and of course this is what they should focus on. But of course in many parts of the world there can be serious degrees of insecurity and there can be what Paul Collier, an economist, has characterized as economic development in reverse. I think a lot of our economic textbooks look at economic progress and economic growth in societies where institutions are pretty strong and stable, but there of course are many parts of the world that have really serious forms of insecurity, and the standard textbook approaches don’t really fit well in those areas, and so I think economists have to step up and do more in thinking about issues of war and peace and insecurity. I think another issue here is that economics perhaps is the most quantitative of the social sciences. It can be very mathematical, very statistical-oriented, and that can present some obstacles in the sense of trying to communicate to a broader audience.
Is it just simpler to focus on things like ancient hatreds, in terms of public attention, instead of economic realities? Or do you think it’s also harder emotionally for people to look at cases as terrible as genocide through cold, but also I think very relatable financial terms? Does that relatability actually make it harder?
CA: You know, it’s very interesting. Right after the end of the Cold War there was a kind of ramp-up in the number of civil wars that were out there, and a lot of the media portrayal of these civil wars was that they were driven by ethnic animosities or some ancient animosities that now resurfaced at the end of the Cold War, and there probably were valuable insights into looking at it that way, but some economists also looked at problems of underdevelopment, of contests over resources within countries, and these other economic factors became important. It did become a kind of cold, cost-benefit analysis approach to looking at issues of underdevelopment and resource contestation, but there was some empirical weight that these economic factors mattered. So I think in a similar way we’ve got to try to bring economics to bear in thinking about cost and benefit issues regarding genocide and mass killing.
The World Bank and IMF, coming up, are going to be putting on a working group for developing a genocide prevention lens to incorporate into their development project criteria. How optimistic are you that efforts like these and the future of turning public attention have of getting to a point where addressing mass atrocities and genocides through that economic lens?
JB: I think the degree of optimism may depend on the expected time frame. Sometimes when these sorts of things are put in place in an institution and there’s a press communication made, people may have unrealistic expectations that things will be better in two years or five years, and in fact you’re just setting in motion a process, and that process may take 10 or 15 or 20 years to work out. It’s probably unrealistic, not optimistic, to say something will happen within a year or two, but it may be much more realistic and optimistic to say that over a longer time period, the process is put in place and measures are being taken, observations are made, discussions are held, and that aid and assistance ultimately will be tied through criteria that are presumably yet to be developed. So I think if you take a less urgent, urgent as the matter is, but a less urgent perspective, then perhaps in 10 years’ time we will have the result that we want.
Well, I hope you keep making strides toward making the economic aspects of mass killing and genocide an important part of the discussion. Thank you so much, Charles, Jurgen, for speaking with me today.
CA: Thank you.
JB: Thank you very much.
Photos: Courtesy Charles Anderton and Jurgen Brauer