Africa’s debt: who owes whom?

American Friends Service Committee
February 5, 2004

Africa is center stage in the struggle for human and economic rights. It is home to the world’s gravest health crises – including the HIV/AIDS pandemic and chronic famine. Even though Africa has only 5 percent of the developing world’s income, it carries about two thirds of the debt – over $300 billion. Because of this, the average African country spends three times more of its scarce resources on repaying debt than it does on providing basic services. In addressing Africa’s struggle for relief from its onerous external debt, advocates of global justice have raised a critical question: Who owes whom?

“It is unacceptable to spend more on debt servicing to wealthy nations and institutions than on basic social services when millions of people lack access to primary education, preventative health care, adequate food and safe drinking water” said Imani Countess, the Africa coordinator for AFSC’s peace-building unit. “It is not just morally wrong, it is also poor economics.”

On the eve of Black history month, Wednesday, January 28 at 2:00 at the Rayburn House Congressional Office in Washington DC, the American Friends Service Committee, an international social justice organization, launched its Life over Debt campaign to have Africa’s debt cancelled.

The Life over Debt campaign reaches out to local U.S. communities – especially minority communities – to build understanding of the dilemmas Africa faces and highlight shared experience and common ground. Through building a caring and active constituency the campaign sets out to increase Americans commitment to helping address the Africa debt crisis.

That is why on the eve of, and during Black History Month we called for not just reflecting on Africa in terms of the history for the African Diaspora, but also for Africans in Africa today. Given the potential for history to influence or control the perception of the world, it is important to reflect on how the past injustices have impacted the current debt crisis.

Current World Bank and International Monetary Fund debt relief initiatives do not adequately address Africa’s debt crisis. Not only is relief insufficient for countries included, but also, there are countries excluded from the program that have legitimate cases for debt cancellation. To demonstrate this, the Life over Debt campaign focuses on five Sub-Sahara African countries with very different cases for debt cancellation.

Debt relief program poster children dependent on commodity exports are not out of the woods

Uganda was the first country to complete the debt relief program, but as coffee prices plummeted it has seen its debt increase again – demonstrating the current relief efforts are not sufficient.

Mozambique, with a history of apartheid-caused war, was forced by loan conditionalities to cut support for an infant cashew roasting industry that could have helped stabilize the economy when the raw cashew prices collapsed.

Designated as having “sustainable debt” by the World Bank – yet who owes whom?

South Africa has $25 billion in foreign debt that is considered sustainable even when it is one of the most unequal countries in the world with 20 percent of adults HIV infected. A large percent of the debt is odious and illegal with an estimated 11.7 billion from interest on loans from the apartheid era.

Angola is wealthy from oil and diamond exports and considered to have sustainable debt, but the country ranks near the bottom of the United Nations human development index, 161 out of 173 countries. The majority of the $10 billion debt is owed to countries involved in the cold-war era decades of war.

Classic case of “odious” debt

Democratic Republic of Congo was promised 80 percent debt relief ($10 billion) but it is one of the strongest cases for full cancellation. Former dictator Mobuto Sese Seko who assassinated the country’s elected leader was granted loans that disappeared into foreign banks with few traces.

“Our campaign’s call for cancellation of odious and illegal debt is no different that President Bush’s current pleas to Iraq’s creditors” said Imani Countess, coordinator of the AFSC Africa Program and the Life over Debt campaign. “Creditors should forgive the debt that was odious and illegal in the first place when loans were made without the consent of the people and not spent in their interest.”

AFSC is grounded in Quaker beliefs respecting the dignity and worth of every person and has historically worked with communities of color in the US on civil and human rights. The AFSC has been involved in Africa for decades working in economic development projects, diplomatic exchanges, health promotion, housing, and community reconciliation.

Categories: Africa, Odious Debts

Tagged as:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s