G8 in Rostock: The State of Debt

The “Another World is Possible” rally in Rostock, 2nd June.

At about 2.30pm, several thousand people dressed in black emerged from the ranks of the eighty-thousand peaceful demonstrators and marched at the police. Clashes started shortly afterwards. The police’s initial charges were limited, and did not disperse the group in black – though they did send panicking bystanders fleeing into the festival area that had been agreed as a no-conflict zone. After several hours, as crowds restricted access by fire engines to a burning car, heavy anti-riot machines were brought in and five hundred injuries from tear gas ensured, with two hundred arrests and injuries to twenty police (according to reports).

I don’t think that the violent protestors on Saturday had a thought-out political programme (whereas the peaceful summit blockaders do – and they are being injured and arrested in large numbers, possibly as a result of tougher policing following Saturday’s violence). However, their actions lent the Summit a needed air of crisis. For as regards the intermeshed causes of global poverty, the only thing in question at the Summit is what margin of backsliding will be countenanced. This G8 is a theatre of sterile debate: 2005’s categorical pledges to end global poverty have been broken down – as they always are – into incomprehensible technical formulae, which consume the intellectual energy that should be spent on making a just world.

For background information, and pictures, see Jubilee Scotland’s website.

Debt and poverty: the trends and debates.

Level of reduction

The G8’s debt deal has been implemented for twenty-two countries. This has reduced the net debts of these countries from US$34.7 billion to US$15.4 billion (calculated by Eurodad using World Bank figures: see Eurodad p.6). Of these twenty-two, the eighteen in Sub Saharan Africa have had debts reduced from US$26.3 billion to US$9.3 billion.

Meanwhile:

The World Bank offsets the costs of this debt cancellation by reducing the loans it makes to the countries in question (see “World Bank Debt Relief – TOTAL scam“, and “Disappearing Debt Relief“).

The crucial question for us is: by how much are countries’ monthly debt repayments being reduced? The IMF’s recent State of Implementation for HIPC (PDF here) report shows that, due to new borrowing, the debt service is not reducing by very much at all. It looks like it is down by about a fifth (18%) (p.10, fig.4).

How can it be that the overall debts are being reduced by over half, but the debt service reduces only by a fifth? One reason is that countries are taking on new loans. The IMF says that countries will have to show “strengthened management of both external and domestic debt” to avoid falling back into unsustainable debt. That is, it blames the countries themselves for their debt problems. But, arguably, the root problem of debt was not poor financial management: it was the structurally unfair trade that prevents the poorest negotiating a fair price for their exports. The fact that countries are having to take on new loans to survive suggests that the structural problems are unresolved. There will always be those, however, who want to present the African finance ministers as feckless or venal. Another reason may be that the loans being cancelled were not really being serviced anyway, or that there were other debts that were not being serviced which were serviced using the relief (this certainly happened in Zambia), such that the debt cancellation was on paper only.

However, some judge the debt cancellation a success, because what definitely is reducing is the ratio between debt service and export earnings. This is down by over half (p.10, fig.4). The very poor countries are making more from exports, and so are judged by able to pay off their debts.

The IMF reports that poverty reducing expenditures have increased from 7% of GDP to 10% of GDP in the poorest, most indebted countries, since 1999; however, the definition of what counts as a poverty reducing expenditure has also been expanding over that period, so the actual increase may be lower. An alternative World Bank report says there is an increase in education spending, and a very slight increase in health spending, in the poorest countries (p.12 nt.16).

A fair summary of the present situation, then, could be that the G8 has done very little to solve the problem of debt, and that the high primary goods prices caused by China’s growth are providing a temporary respite to Africa’s problems.

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