Conditional discharge

Debt relief for Africa, says CIWEM's Nick Reeves, comes with conditions that may prove as burdensome as the debt itself, leaving millions still without the clean water, sanitation and healthcare they need.

Tony Blair’s priorities at the recent G8 summit – Africa and climate change – are more closely linked than some might think. Unfortunately, climate change has been eclipsed by Africa – a pity, for without urgent action on climate change, it will be impossible to make poverty history.

But this is not the time for doom-saying. That 300M Africans – mostly in sub-Saharan Africa – will be relieved of around £30B worth of debt is very good news. Many in Africa exist on a daily basis without clean water, sanitation, or a regular source of food, and they pay more for their debt than for their health and education combined. We can rejoice that many of these people will now be able to take control of their lives and say goodbye to the culture of dependency that shames us all. Soon, the poor will be able to irrigate their farms, grow crops and trade fairly.

Or will they? If you actually read between the lines of the deal struck between the G8 club of rich nations and the desperately poor of Africa, you will see there is devil in the detail that should give us cause for concern.

Much of the money lent by the IMF and the World Bank to certain corrupt dictators should never have been offered in the first place. The controls and regulatory regimes were not there or, where they did exist, were not robust or transparent enough. Ludicrous amounts of cash, instead of providing clean water for all, improving sanitation and tackling HIV/Aids were, by and large, used to buy arms and inflate private bank accounts. And given that – in terms of looted resources and minerals, and Western-induced climate change – the developed countries have beggared Africa, the rich owe more to the poor than the poor owe to the rich.

Climate change, the killer legacy of the industrially-developed countries to Africa (and elsewhere), needs urgent action now. Because if we do not put the brakes on global warming, debt relief for the poor will have been for nothing. According to most respected and serious commentators we have 50 years to slow down the rate of climate change to avoid disaster. Western governments’ efforts thus far have been denounced, by eminent scientist Lord May of Oxford, as “gutless”. In the light of this, and the need to set a better example, we must wait and see if debt relief will make a real difference to the lives of ordinary poor Africans.

Let us look more closely, though, at what debt relief means. As I see it, it comes with conditions that makes the largesse of the G8 countries look something like a street mugging. To qualify for debt relief, indebted African countries must adhere to ‘conditionalities’; as well as pledging to tackle corruption and increase accountability (fair enough), they must agree to ‘boost private sector development’ and do away with ‘impediments to private investment, both domestic and foreign’. Indications so far are that when the G8 insist on ‘eliminating impediments to private investment’, the result can be commercialisation and privatisation that enriches Western businesses at the expense of local people.

The G8 countries say that these conditions are designed to help the poor African countries develop and compete successfully. But how is this possible when Western players have a powerful incentive to ensure that the developing countries compete unsuccessfully, and when Western companies can ‘grab’ their services, their resources and their commodities at rock-bottom prices? It seems to me that the ‘conditionalities’ that will be imposed on the poor nations will do little other than to keep them on a very short leash and amount to just another form of indebtedness. The notion that these conditions might help tackle corruption seems like a joke to me. Uganda, for example, was forced to privatise most of its state-owned companies before it had the means of effective regulation. Consequently, a sell-off that was due to net the government over £300M raised a mere £1.5M for the public coffers. I wonder where the difference ended up?

The form of debt relief on offer feels to me like a hollow gesture; attaching conditions to aid and debt relief is just plain wrong – and it is disingenuous of the G8 leaders to bathe in the reflected glory of their own benevolence. Their strategy for saving Africa is, at least in part, the stuff of smoke and mirrors; it is not in the spirit of giving at all.

The Make Poverty History campaign has caught the public mood. I do not believe its supporters will be satisfied that the G8’s ‘aid with conditions’ package is either practical or even morally acceptable. The fact is this: poor Africans need access to affordable clean water, proper sanitation, electricity, the means to grow food for all, and – just as much as they need aid without conditions – they need to be able to trade fairly.

Yes, let us cancel debt, but without the attachment of self-benefitting strings. If the G8 leaders had agreed to that, they would have deserved all the plaudits they are now getting. We in the West have a responsibility to Africa. We must discharge our duty unconditionally.

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