18 January 2018

Economic sanctions do not work: the case of Sudan

(Source: Lifting US Digital Technology Sanctions on the Sudanese people initiative)

(Source: Lifting US Digital Technology Sanctions on the Sudanese people initiative)

Earlier this year, Sudanese activists (rightly) celebrated a breakthrough achievement when the US lifted the technological sanctions on Sudan, allowing access to software technology and online stores. But I’m not jumping on the celebration bandwagon just yet, because while the new changes grant an access opportunity, it is a very limited one. For example, the Central Bank of Sudan is still on the sanctioned list, meaning that unless you have an account abroad (that wasn’t closed due to your Sudanese passport), you can’t actually make a purchase in any app store.

In 1997 when Sudan was found guilty of harboring terrorists and violating human rights, the Clinton administration indefinitely imposed the crippling sanctions Sudan still has today. Ostensibly designed to weaken our regime by denying them access to economic and military resources needed to maintain order, in practice economic sanctions have been shown to harm ordinary citizens and reduce trade opportunities. Meanwhile, the targeted regime thrives, and political elites avoid the cost of sanctions by diverting the cost to the average citizen. In the case of Sudan, we have fallen victim to inflation, unfavorable foreign exchange rates and the cutting of subsidies; at the same time, the elite generates revenue by securing a supply of resources through underground channels.

What did the US miss? In the post-Soviet decade sanctions may have worked because we lived in a world with one super power. But today, in a multi-pole world with successful emerging economies like the BRICS, the US simply cannot punish target regimes successfully through sanctions. When oil in Sudan was discovered by Western multinationals and they were forced to leave, China was happy to take over; when US-backed countries refused to supply our government with weapons, Iran welcomed us with open arms.

So everyone is happy, right?

Wrong; simply because the fact is that sanctions have isolated Sudan from the international trade market and discouraged foreign (non-Chinese) investment, making Sudanese business a loser in a globalized world. Heavy reliance on a slowing Chinese economy (which accounts for 30% of our exports and 20% of our imports) is a huge risk. In Sudan the resources available for start-ups are non-existent, infrastructure is inadequate, the manufacturing sector is struggling and the services sector is a joke. Yet the US is blocking the very tools that might help bring about change. The result is minimal wealth creation, a dwindling middle class and weak political stability. Even the almighty Iran is now sitting at the negotiating table with the US because they realize sanctions are a lose-lose situation.

Evidence is piling up against sanctions (what exactly is it that makes them the go-to disciplinary tool any time the West is displeased with a third world country?). It might be because, if the aim of the sanctions was to make Sudan poor, then mission accomplished; if it was to topple the government, then – after twenty years and three US presidents – our ruling party is still thriving, and we can safely say that sanctions failed.


Featured image credit: UNAMID Photo/flickr

3 Comments on this post.

Leave a Reply to cordonedsudan Cancel reply

  • cordonedsudan
    29 June 2015 at 11:48 am - Reply

    Beyond the obvious benefit to many people’s lives, it’s not clear how sanctions relief would lead to regime change. In fact it may contribute to a reinforced Arab-Islamic elite that is confident that it’s government, political and business class, and center-periphery war machine & economy are the right answers for the rest of the country.

    Moreover, chronic political instability is not a feature of the sanctions program. Sudan has been unstable long before its relations with the US soured. And sanctions relief neither addresses our lack of national agreement and nor does it promote a sense of individual responsibility and respect for all cultures, beliefs, and non-belief. One can almost say that applying maximum pressure on all people of Sudan focuses the discussion around regime change. That’s the American logic, and though punishing, it is sound.

    With respect to Iran, I’m afraid you’re garnering the wrong lessons from the US’s engagement with Iran. President Obama has a less bellicose foreign policy than that of other US presidents, and he’s securing what he deems is in America’s longterm national security interests. His administration is avoiding a war trajectory that is salient in the current architecture.

    Sanctions relief towards Iran have little to do with the Iranian people. Instead it locks a nuclear agreement that if violated gives the US and its allies a mandate for war.

    Curiously, the idea that sanctions doesn’t work in Sudan is what Ibrahim Ghandour is telling the US. He’s saying, “we’re also important to regional stability in North and East Africa just as Iran is important to its region’s stability where ISIS is concerned. So we should discuss stopping sanctions.” These are tactical arguments by the government. The Americans won’t be moved by them.

    • imka
      20 August 2015 at 11:39 pm - Reply

      if the US doesn’t see radical crazies operating in North, Western, Eastern, and Central Africa as threat to its national security then unfortunately the State department run by bunch of idiots. If the State department is aware of the threat, yet they choose to do nothing, then the state department is still run by idiots. If the State department is aware of all of the above they ought to get involved and play ball according to the Geo-political conditions currently in the area. The whole region is under going drastic political, and economic transformation, any reasonably level headed power who wants to have presence, and future presence can not sit idle. You got to evolve along the evolving Geo-political conditions, or you will simply miss the boat.

  • AK
    28 December 2015 at 4:10 pm - Reply

    Thanks Leena for a well written and composed article; I would like to also add the recent restrictions imposed by the US government, Office of Foreign Asset Controls’ on the process of verification and accreditation of medical credentials for those whom have graduated from Sudanese medical schools irrespective of their nationality, which is a huge blow to those who would like to further advance their careers in various north American, Australian and certain African countries, and again the only people who are affected by this are the medical graduates as opposed to government officials.

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