Press Release Afghanistan Iran Latin America and the Caribbean Sanctions US Foreign Policy Venezuela World

New Report Finds that Economic Sanctions Are Often Deadly and Harm People’s Living Standards in Target Countries

May 04, 2023

Contact: Dan Beeton, 202-293-5380 x104Mail_Outline

Washington, DC — A new report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research finds that economic sanctions harm people in target countries, including by contributing to increases in mortality, poverty, and inequality, and to declines in per capita income and human rights. The report, “The Human Consequences of Economic Sanctions,” by economist Francisco Rodríguez, reviews 32 studies that assess the impact of economic sanctions on living standards. It shows that 30 of these analyses found significant declines in living standards in sanctions-targeted countries, including Afghanistan, Iran, and Venezuela — three case studies that demonstrate how sanctions contribute to widespread harm, including death.

“Whether sanctions hurt regular people in the target countries is a hotly debated topic,” Rodríguez says, “but it shouldn’t be. The evidence from almost all critical examinations of economic sanctions shows that they are very damaging — and sometimes lethal — for people who happen to be living in any of the many and growing number of countries subject to such measures by the US, the EU, or other powerful actors.”

The report finds that in Afghanistan, Iran, and Venezuela, “sanctions that restricted governments’ access to foreign exchange affected the ability of states to provide essential public goods and services and generated substantial negative spillovers on private sector and nongovernmental actors.… These case studies,” the report goes on to note, “help us to look more closely at the main channels through which sanctions affect the economy and living standards,” including by depriving countries of revenue for all kinds of imports, including of food, medicines, medical equipment, and other necessities. The experiences of Afghanistan, Iran, and Venezuela “also illuminate why safeguard mechanisms, such as humanitarian exceptions, fail to offset these collateral effects.”

The report is especially relevant as economic sanctions are increasingly a go-to US foreign policy tool supported by policymakers, and implemented by presidential administrations, from both the Democratic and Republican parties. Today, more than one in four countries are subject to sanctions by the UN or Western governments, and 29 percent of global GDP is produced in sanctioned countries, up from only 4 percent in the 1960s.

This reliance on sanctions goes against public opinion. A recent Harris Poll showed that most Americans (58 percent) believe sanctions should be lifted “if they damage economic activity and livelihoods of ordinary citizens,” and three in five Americans believe the US should lift sanctions “if they interfere with humanitarian aid and global public health.” 

By “provid[ing] a systematic survey of the empirical literature using both cross-country panel and country-level data sets,” the report “find[s] a remarkable level of consensus across studies that sanctions have strongly negative and often long-lasting effects on the living conditions of most people in target countries,” and “severely impact the most vulnerable groups.”

“With sanctions’ growing popularity as a policy tool in Washington, we hope this report will encourage policymakers to give more consideration to how regular people in these countries are harmed by them,” Rodríguez says. “There is growing debate within policy circles as well as in academia about the humanitarian consequences of sanctions, as well as sanctions’ effectiveness in achieving foreign policy goals, and hopefully this report will contribute meaningfully to this debate.”

Francisco Rodríguez is a Venezuelan opposition economist and a prominent authority on the economies of Venezuela and Ecuador. He is the Rice family professor of the practice of international and public affairs at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies and was a visiting senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research when he wrote this report.


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