Media  Global Economy  2022.07.05

The analysis of the economic consequences of wars must better take into account the long-term effects on public health

Le Monde on June 28th, 2022

This article was initially published in French in Le Monde newspaper on 28. June 2022, as part of a series of monthly columns on Asian economies. The original article can be found here:

Southeast Asia

Column by Sébastien Lechevalier, Professor at Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS, Paris), Senior Researcher at Maison franco-japonaise (UMIFRE 19, Tokyo) and at the Canon Institute for Global Studies (CIGS, Tokyo).

Two economists have shown that, thirty years after its spraying by the US Air Force, Agent Orange causes more disabilities among poor women and ethnic minorities, reports Sébastien Lechevalier, Professor at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, researcher at the Maison Franco-Japonaise in Tokyo and at the Canon Institute for Global Studies, in his column.

Column. What are the consequences of wars for the economy? Research shows that, apart from the short-term effects, which are disastrous in terms of human losses and destruction, the long-term impact on growth is neutral or even positive. On the other hand, few studies analyze the long-term effects on the physical and psychological health of not only former soldiers but also civilians, their families and their descendants.

This is the interest of the study carried out by two Japanese and Vietnamese economists on the long-term effects of the spraying of Agent Orange by the American air force during the Vietnam War on the predisposition of the affected populations to develop handicaps (Long-Term Effects of Vietnam War: Agent Orange and the Health of Vietnamese People After 30 Years, Trong-Anh Trinh and Nobuaki Yamashita, Asian Economic Journal, n°36/2, June 2022)

In total, according to data from the US Department of Defense, to which the authors had access, more than 75 million liters of herbicides were spilled on approximately one quarter of the territory of South Vietnam between 1961 and 1971. Among them, Agent Orange (containing dioxin) was the one most used by the American army during the war. One of its specificities is its very long chemical life. Its effects are persistent, once it has been absorbed into the ecosystem; the transfer to humans is then mainly through the consumption of organic matter.

Among the many dramatic health effects of dioxin exposure observed in Vietnam, including for those born after the war, are cancer and diabetes, as well as birth defects such as spina bifida (spinal abnormality), cognitive impairment and missing or deformed limbs.

Vulnerable Groups

To conduct their study, the authors compare geographically precise U.S. data on Agent Orange spraying with Vietnamese data from the 2009 population census, which includes information on the predisposition of individuals to disability. They focus on cohorts born after the end of the war (1975) in rural areas, and compare heavily and less heavily affected regions, allowing them to better identify persistent Agent Orange-related effects from other more direct consequences of the war. Another difficulty in conducting this research is population migration, so they focus on individuals who have not moved recently, and on ethnic minorities, who are less mobile.

Their results are very clear: the negative impact of Agent Orange is confirmed for the populations of the affected regions more than thirty years after the end of the war, with a significantly greater predisposition to mobility, hearing and memory impairments. These effects are concentrated among women, especially those from the poorest social backgrounds, who seem to have had less access to health care facilities and educational resources. This is especially true for members of ethnic minorities who have few opportunities to migrate outside these areas.

The lessons to be learned from this study are twofold. On the one hand, the analysis of the economic consequences of wars must take better account of the long-term effects on public health, including those born after the war, in addition to the material destruction and human losses. On the other hand, post-war reconstruction policies must better identify vulnerable groups according to social, ethnic and gender criteria, and direct resources to them in a targeted manner, as part of a long-term strategy. What is true for Vietnam is also true for the Middle East, and for Europe.