I always enjoy talking about Zimbabwe in economics class. Kids can’t imagine that I’m telling the truth about 1,000,000% inflation rates or 100,000,000,000,000 dollar bills. But Zimbabwe has been kind of quiet lately, since they somewhat stabilized their economy. Then comes this story. I’m better off than Zimbabwe. Some of my students are better off than Zimbabwe. And Zimbabwe better be careful if they use their debit card!
There are cash-strapped governments and there are broke governments. And then there’s Zimbabwe, which, after paying last week’s government salaries, has just $217 left in the bank. No, we didn’t forget any zeroes to the end of that figure. Zimbabwe, the country that’s home to some of the world’s largest platinum and diamond reserves, literally has the same financial standing as a 14-year-old girl after a really good birthday party. The country’s finance minister admitted as much in a press conference on Tuesday. “Last week when we paid civil servants there was $217 [left] in government coffers,” Tendai Biti told reporters. “The government finances are in paralysis state at the present moment. We are failing to meet our targets.”
So it seems. However, Zimbabwe is hardly a stranger to financial hyperbole. The economy started to come apart at the seams in 2000, when President Robert Mugabe seized the land of over 4,000 white-owned farmers, effectively dismantling the country’s agriculture industry. Over the course of the next decade, the country spiraled into an extended period of hyperinflation, the likes of which the world almost never sees. It peaked in August 2008, when inflation reached 11,200,000 percent and economists around the world started to say that the country’s situation was hopeless. Prices were doubling by the day, and the government had to print Z$100 billion notes. The following year, they went ahead and printed Z$100 trillion notes, just before deciding to chop 12 zeroes off of the currency. A new coalition government formed that year and started on the long process of financial recovery, a process that is clearly going to take a little longer.
It’s unclear how the Zimbabwean government is going to get itself out this fiscal mess, but whatever it does, it needs to do it quickly. As Quartz’s Tim Fernholz points out, Zimbabwe is looking at a $104 million bill for its upcoming election. Its government is also dealing with brand new allegations that government officials have been running a corruption ring around the country’s diamond mines. The country obviously desperately needs a major change. “But action against corruption probably won’t come until the end of Mugabe’s reign, and a new constitution coming up for a referendum this spring — presuming the funds can be found — might set up the aging autocrat for another term in power,” writes Fernholz.
Until then, looking for quarters under the couch isn’t going to cut it, so Zimbabwe is doing the only thing it can do. “We will be approaching the international community,” Biti said. You’ll never guess who’s most likely to come to the rescue. Hint: They’re big fans of rare minerals.