Malawi’s debt relief enigma

What was the value of Malawi’s debt cancellation (received in September 2006)?

If Malawi had received its debt relief with no hidden reductions and cuts, it would have had $101 million extra per annum free in its budget (the UK, in comparison, gave $180 million in 2006: SID, table 16.2). What it has really had is less impressive even than this. At best Malawi’s debt relief amounts to nothing more than a marginal adjustment to its domestic debt interest bill; at worst it amounts to less than nothing.

In September 2006 Malawi completed the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries process. Goodall Gondwe set out his intention to use the money saved specifically for the benefit of the poor. “Mr Speaker, Sir, and Honourable Members”, he stated, “during the budget review in March, it was proposed to spend these debt relief resources on those social activities that would benefit the poorer segment of the population.” (2007/8 Budget Statement, para. 48 – link now broken.)

But this appears to be impossible, since the terms and conditions of the debt relief Malawi received actually reduce the amount of money available for “the poorer segment”.

Gondwe’s 2007/8 Budget Speech explains that the overall debt stock was reduced from $3.0 billion to $0.5 billion, leading to saving in interest and capital repayments of $101 million in 2007/8; however, Malawi had been receiving $36 million per annum since the year 2000 in interim debt relief; so extra value provided by debt relief in 2006 was around $65 million per annum

However, a large proportion of this new debt relief money was provided under the terms of the deal agreed at the G8 Summit in Scotland in 2005: and under these terms, countries receiving debt relief also get a cut-back in the amount of development loans they receive from the World Bank. One of the terms of the debt relief deal for Malawi was that its World Bank funding would be reduced by $27 million per annum (this is, apparently, because the US won out over the UK during the 2005 G8 Summit debt relief negotiations: download article here). Now, the World Bank provides money to Malawi, it says, specifically to help with reducing poverty; given this, it seems fair to say that this $27 million per annum reduction is money that would have been, and now is not, available to benefit the “poorer segment”.

Malawi has – or had, in 2006 – huge domestic debts; this is because the government under Muluzi shored up its budgets by borrowing large amounts from Malawian and Malawi-resident businesses. An agreement was made with the IMF that a large proportion of the money saved through getting debt relief in 2006 would be directed towards reducing domestic debt. This agreement, set out in the 2006 Article IV Consultation(para. 22) ringfences $26 million per annum for the Malawian budget, and directs the the remainder to reducing domestic debt.

This means that only $26 million per annum is available for spending specifically on projects that benefit “the poorer segment of the population”. But we have already seen that the World Bank is reducing the money available for reducing poverty by $27 million per annum So Malawi had less, not more, money available for spending against poverty as a result of getting debt relief.

Certainly, by reducing domestic debt, the Malawi government will have a lower domestic debt interest bill to pay, and this will improve its financial situation overall. The IMF Article IV consultation says it will reduce domestic debt by 1.4% GDP; I have not tried to calculate the significance of this for the annual domestic debt interest bill. However, the claim made by governments and NGOs alike, was that debt relief money would go directly to pro-poor spending. “The debt relief to be provided as a result of reaching completion point will provide a great push to Malawi’s poverty reduction efforts”, said Michael Baxter, World Bank country director for Malawi.

This is a tremendous overstatement. If Malawi had received debt relief without these underlying conditions, it would have made less difference than an ungenerous donor. As it is, the debt relief will result in less money available specifically for “pro-poor” spending, but with some circumstantial reduction in the pressure of the domestic debt interest bill.

Debt relief is a noble cause: but delivered in this form it is vitiated.

Jubilee Scotland

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4 Responses to Malawi’s debt relief enigma

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