Disappearing debt relief

The debt relief offered to Zambia through the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative would reduce the money available for human development.  This is a surprising claim in a paper by John Weeks and Terry McKinley for the United Nations Development Programme (PDF here).  When G8 Debt Deal cancellation (MDRI) is added, Zambia does see a net benefit: but only a very slight one, and far below what was promised.

Officially, Zambia is receiving a reduction in debt service equal to 5.3% of its GDP, annually, over the next few years; but according to McKinley and Weeks the new money available for anti-poverty spending is only 0.8% of GDP.  Where’s the rest?

1. Redirection of G8 debt relief to private debts

According to Weeks and McKinley, over half of the funds accruing to Zambia by way of debt relief are redirected to pay other debts.

Given that the Bank of Zambia faced large debt service obligations, whose non-payment could have resulted in a curtailment of non-HIPC donor assistance, [some of the] HIPC interim debt service relief accruing to the Bank of Zambia was designated for debt service payments.  [IMF 2005]

Thus, according to McKinley and Weeks, “over half of HIPC interim debt relief (3.1 out of 5.7 percentage points) was merely an accounting entry.”

The debts to be serviced by this redirection of HIPC money are likely to be private sector debts – possibly government bonds bought by domestic businesses, possibly commercial banks in donor (G8) countries.  If so, banks are benefitting from money supposedly given to the poor.  Note that the figures given above are for interim HIPC relief; the figures for relief at completion point are lower (see section 3, below), but still considerable.

2. Tighter public spending limits

One of the conditions Zambia had to meet for debt relief was a reduction in its fiscal deficit: public overspending was to be reduced from 3.9% of GDP (2000-2004) to 0.6% of GDP (2006 onwards) (p. 11, table four).  Unless these savings are found by cutting budgets which have nothing to do with human development, the consequences will be felt by the poor.

3. Reduction in grants and other loans

As pointed out previously, the World Bank reduces the amount of aid available to heavily indebted countries in order to offset the cost of debt cancellation.  According to EURODAD, Zambia will receive debt service reduction of $38 million in financial year 07-08; but it will have its loans from the World Bank’s International Development Association reduced by about $31 million (pdf of report here; table 4; loans reduction calculated by subtracting column three from column two, or column four from column one).  Net benefit to Zambia of G8 deal is thus $7 million a year.

McKinley and Weeks calculate the reduction in grants, plus the accounting entries described above, to total 3.0% of GDP.  In summary (paraphrasing p.11):

The G8 debt deal ought to reduce Zambia’s debt service by 6.9% of GDP.  Better terms of trade also improves things by 0.2% of GDP.  Total improvement in Zambia’s finances ought to be 7.1% of GDP (as it stood in 2005).


Redirection of debt relief to commercial debt service, plus reduction in grants, reduces this by 3.0. Tighter deficit limits reduces it by 3.3.


Real benefit to Zambia of G8 Debt Deal is: 0.8% of GDP.


The use of debt relief to service commercial debts looks like a naked transfer of aid money to the private sector, but it’s possible that the IMF is doing Zambia a favour by allowing this.  Officially, countries are meant to clear debt arrears before they can receive HIPC relief; this redirection of interim relief might have been a way for Zambia to meet that criteria and so qualify for completion point.  This needs further investigation.

On the face of it, though, it seems the conditions attached to debt relief have the effect of making virtually all the money disappear.  If the analysis is right – and if, as seems possible, what holds for Zambia also holds generally – we can expect very little improvement over the next few years, and the lack of improvement might well be used to discredit the idea of debt relief itself. 

But if the situation really is as McKinley and Weeks describe, debt relief is not at fault: the fault lies with the conditions under which it is disbursed.


13 Responses to Disappearing debt relief

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  2. IVA says:

    Unfortunately, the level of debt Zambia finds itself in is virtually unsustainable and is unlikely to be paid off other than through deflating their currency and inflatig their costs.

    If ever there were a case for a countries being humanely put out of pain, Zambia and especially Zimbabwe are the perfect examples.

    In both instances, the people, the poor por people are the ones who end up being financially crucified and in 3rd world impoverished countries like these, it isnt a question of simply having to tighten their belts as that option was exploited a long long time ago..

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