Debt around the world – winter 2013

9 December 2013

Below are some developments from the world of global debt over the past few months.

1. The Scottish Government launched its White Paper ‘Scotland’s Future’ on the 26th November. In this, debt relief is highlighted as a priority for international development, with the statement:

“The Scottish Government will give careful consideration to the question of ‘unjust’ debts; will work to ensure that Scottish export politics do not create new unjust debts; and support moves to establish Scotland as an international centre for debt arbitration.”

While remaining neutral on the issue of Scottish independence, Jubilee Scotland is welcoming the Government’s recognition of sovereign debt as a key issue for Scotland’s international development policy. This is a great campaign success. It is recognised however that in either scenario following the referendum Jubilee Scotland’s work must continue to ensure unjust debts are given full consideration through an audit of Scottish and UK debts and a commitment made to cancel all those deemed to be unjust.

Jubilee Scotland’s paper outlining their asks for debt justice in both a yes and no vote, and responses by the Yes Scotland and Better Together campaigns can be found here.

The Scottish Government’s commitment appears in chapter 6 of the white paper.

2. Egypt has been revealed to be the most indebted country in the Middle East and Africa, seventh in the World. (Argentina remains in first place globally as the country least likely to be able to pay its debts.) Egypt’s debts now make up 79.8 percent of its GDP, totalling $234.4 billion which is the equivalent of $2600 for every Egyptian citizen. The likelihood of Egypt being unable to pay its debts has now risen to 37.9 percent. Egypt is a key case for Scotland and the UK with many debts owed by the country being to UK Export Finance for loans made during the Mubarak regime and for arms. Meanwhile, Kuwait plans to buy $2 billion of Egyptian bonds as part of a second aid package having already pledged $15 billion in aid alongside Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates earlier this year.

Read more on Egypt’s debts here.

3. Greneda is making plans to lower its income tax threshold on the recommendations of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and as part of its debt restructuring programme. Grenada is currently seeking to hold a conference with all of its creditors to come to a mutual agreement about how to meet its debt obligations.

4. The IMF Fiscal Monitor Report estimates that Pakistan requires $76.9 billion, the equivalent of 30 percent of its yearly GDP to pay off its existing debts. This places it at the top of the of the list of indebted emerging countries and suggests it is going to find itself borrowing more in order to meet its repayments.

5. Several developing countries, including Jamaica, El Salvador and Pakistan, are failing to meet international development goals after rich countries reneged on a pledge to deal with their debts. Moreover, unjust debts in countries such as Greece, Portugal and Latvia are now increasing poverty at an alarming rate. These findings are part of Jubilee Debt Campaign’s ‘Life and debt: Global studies of debt and resistance‘, published in October 2013. The report compares debt crises in nine countries: Egypt, El Salvador, Greece, Jamaica, Latvia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Portugal and Tunisia.

Key findings include:

  • Jamaica pays more on its foreign debt repayments than Greece at a staggering 33 percent of its revenue.
  • Greece is spending 29 percent on its revenue on debt repayments.
  • El Salvador continues to spend 25% of government revenue on foreign debt payments, the debt originating from lending by the western world to the vicious military junta in the 1980s, whilst hunger and extreme poverty are increasing.
  • Pakistan is unlikely to be able to meet many of the Millennium Development Goals because of its debts, including those aiming to halve the proportion of people going hungry, eliminating gender disparity at all levels of education, and reducing by two-thirds the child mortality rate.

The report also gives inspiring examples of the campaigns in countries for debt justice, for example calls in Tunisia for a debt audit.

6. At the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo, Sri Lanka, 15-17th November 2013, on the issue of debt it was minuted that:

‘Heads welcomed the report of the Commonwealth High Level Mission on the debt and financing challenges of Small States. Heads emphasised the need to continue advancing global awareness of unsustainable Small States’ debt and the accompanying financial challenges they confront, building on the Mission’s recent work. They endorsed the recommendations of the Mission’s Report, underlining the importance of continued collaboration within the international community to address these debt and financing challenges and to build small states’ resilience as well as continued engagement on innovative solutions such as the Mission’s proposals for debt reduction and the inclusion of a vulnerability criterion in debt alleviation interventions and allocation procedures of international financial institutions. Heads reaffirmed their support for the Commonwealth Secretariat’s current debt management and recording work.’

It is reassuring to see sovereign debt maintaining a place on the agenda of the Commonwealth Heads of Government. The report to which they refer includes recommendations on the need for integration of resilience building of small states, provision of grace periods for debt repayment during times of natural disasters or other external shocks and provision of countercyclical loans. Whilst these are valuable contributions to the pursuit of debt justice, Jubilee Scotland believes these efforts must go further if they are to tackle the unjust economic systems which support existing lending and borrowing principles. Equally, more attention must be paid to the concept of ‘unjust debt’ and its necessary cancellation.

7. The IMF wants Sri Lanka to boost its tax reveunes to cut both its budget deficit and public debts, a further demonstration of the IMF seeking to impose its economic policies on developing countries. Read the full story here.

8. Qatar has agreed to provide $150 million in debt relief to Palestine. This was announced by US Secretary of State John Kerry during Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in October although no further details were provided.

9. A new Eurodad report, ‘The new debt vulnerabilities. 10 reasons why the debt crisis is not over’ was published in November 2013. It finds that debt vulnerabilities have changed, but overall have not been substantially reduced. The number of bank failures has dropped since the height of the financial crisis which is good news. However, the downside is that governments have paid a high price to stabilise the financial sector, and sovereign debt levels have surged. It states that:

Debt has not been canceled or paid off, it has simply been shifted from one balance sheet to another, and primarily from the private purse to public or government coffers.
The opportunity to use the financial crisis for fundamental reforms in nation and international debt management and debt crises prevention and resolution has largely been wasted.

To read a summary of the report and its recommendations as well as download a copy you can visit the Eurodad website.

10. A Bank of England report has criticised existing methods of dealing with sovereign debt crisis. Referring to bailouts in Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus, the authors say using public money to bail out nations leaves taxpayers shouldering an “inequitable” burden. They suggest that private creditors, those who lent indebted nations the cash in the first place, should instead foot the bill for any rescue.

Whilst acknowledging that current trends in ad hoc bailouts in response to debt crises are poor, the report pays no attention to considering alternative longer-term solutions to debt workout upon which Jubilee Scotland campaigns. It maintains a commitment to bailouts and simply shifts emphasis from public to private rescue plans.

Note: in a disclaimer the report states that the views are not necessarily the official view of the Bank of England, rather the authors of the paper.

11. US American Brooking Institution recently published a new paper on sovereign debt restructuring entitled ‘Revisiting Sovereign Bankruptcy’. It highlights creditors’ role in irresponsible lending, a positive statement in shifting focus away from placing blame on debtor countries for their debt burden. It also promotes the contribution of stakeholders, including NGOs and civicil soviety, in discussions of debt restructuring. Jubilee Scotland welcomes these commitments. On the downside, however, there are only very weak proposals for a reformed scheme. Whilst understanding the need a statutory insolvency framework for sovereign states – a system through which debts can be restructured – rather than presenting alternative ways in which this can be done they point largely only to a wide range of challenges which are presented.

Read a full account written by Jürgen Kaiser of Erlassjahr, a Eurodad member and a partner organisation of Jubilee Scotland.

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Illegitimate Greek Debt

13 June 2013

By Alice Picard, Jubilee Scotland Volunteer (All posts are the views of the author, not Jubilee Scotland as an organisation).

I don’t know what you were up to this Tuesday 11 June 2013 but I was demonstrating in front of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre. Well, almost. Because despite long negotiations with the police, we never made it through to the entrance of the building where the TEDGlobal Conference was taking place. No, we were not trying to get there without paying the £6000 admittance fee. We were rather chanting our opposition to George Papandreou giving a speech in the first session of the conference.

Image “Papandreou, who’s that?”, you ask. Well, you know, the former Prime Minister of Greece, elected in 2009 who served a two-year premiership during which time he was supposed to put an end to austerity measures. “Oh, so that’s why he was invited. To tell attendees how he managed that.”, you naively assume. Well, not exactly. By the way, I thought you were aware of the dreadful current situation in Greece! Mr. Papandreou “drew lessons from the Greek crisis”. I assume the many Greeks who took part to the protest were perfectly able to do that. “We know the lessons from the crisis firsthand. We don’t need lectures from the bosses”, their banner read [1].

ImageLet us imagine anyway how George Papandreou’s speech sounded like.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for being here today. I understand you are expecting me to draw lessons from the Greek crisis. When I came into office in 2009, I inherited a fair amount of debt, to say the least. After meetings with my European colleagues and elected – but mostly non-elected – officials, I got convinced that the best way to tackle the Greek debt and deficit was to get the country into deep recession. The best way to achieve such a result was of course to implement austerity measures, designed in agreement with the Troika, that is the European Central Bank (ECB), the International Fund (IMF) and the people of Greece. I’m kidding, I meant the European Commission (EC).

Of course it did not matter whether or not the same people who had voted me in agreed with these measures. They were quite opposed to it by the way. As soon as we started reducing the minimum wage and pensions, cutting public spending, privatising and making civil servants redundant, they responded by organising massive protests and general strikes. I had a ready-to-use solution though. It was not the first time such policies were imposed against the will of the people. I could count on the IMF’s decades-old experience with Third World countries and on my own country’s history for that matter [2]. Now, if you find yourself faced with opposition, do not slow down the process and keep going. Ideally you would even buy state of the art military equipment and show no mercy for the protesters. Do not forget to criminalise workers’ ability to defend their rights. Naomi Klein calls this efficient combination the “shock doctrine”. In the end, your opponents should grow tired and look powerlessly at the social fabric of the country being ripped apart [3].

How can you assess my success? Not only Greece fell into a deep recession, it is now also facing a humanitarian crisis. Thanks to widespread poverty, people can no longer afford medication, to heat their home, to go to the hospital or to send their children to school. 21% of people now live in poverty and 62% of young people are unemployed. But it is the price they pay for the collapse of the international financial system, bank bail-outs, speculation, the euro and the failure of the successive Greek governments to implement a fair and effective tax system. As you know, “we’re all in this together”. In addition, we cannot be expected to cut on military expenditures, this money goes into the pockets of French and German military industries. So, in addition to reduction in wages for those lucky enough to have a job, we decided to sell out water, energy and railways and to increases taxes, for everyone. Isn’t it a brilliant idea? We ask the average population to pay more with less money. Hence the rise in the number of people committing suicide and the rise of the far right .

Image I am happy to announce that Golden Dawn had Members of Parliament elected in the last elections. With massive support for the party within the police, racially motivated violence can go on with impunity. You can also add to my record that life expectancy is due to fall and the Greek debt to go up this year. Let’s be honest, the point of all that was not really to reduce it anyway. [4]

Fair enough Mr. Papandreou. Now, I know most countries in Europe are tempted to follow suit. However, in a democracy, you should take people’s opinion into account before you go ahead with measures which seriously undermine human rights. If the only way you found to pay back the debt is to cut on healthcare and education and to increase poverty, then it certainly means it is unpayable. As such, it should not be repaid. All the more that if a debt audit is to publicly uncover where the debt came from, who benefited from it and whether and how it should be repaid. Should the Greek people pay for the 108 billion euro required to bail out the banks for instance? Finally, if force has to be employed to push the austerity measures through, this is another indication that the debt is illegitimate. Illegitimate debt actually builds on the concept of odious debt, presented for the first time in 1927 by an economist called Alexander Sack. Odious debt is also based on three prerequisites. First the loan has to be received by a government without the approval and knowledge of the people. Secondly the loan is not spent on activities beneficial to the people and finally the lenders know of this situation. Ironically, this concept has been used several times by the United States to repudiate debt, most recently in Iraq. That the members of the Paris Club asked for the concept not to be officially mentioned was not a reason not to appeal to the concept. Instead Mr. Papandreou, you gave up the sovereignty of Greece and defaulted on the Greek people.

You did not get out of the building Mr. Papandreou in spite of us chanting “Papandreou get out! We know what you’re all about: cuts, job losses, money for the bosses!”.

Image You cannot deny you – and your successors – implemented the cuts and the job losses. As to the “money for the bosses”, two examples will speak for themselves: the national lottery was privatised despite the fact that it was highly profitable and one gold mine in the north of the country was sold for £9.5 million whereas it is believed to have gold and copper worth £8 billion. Other leaders showed more boldness than this though.

Some governments have refused to pay the debt. Countries such as Ecuador, Argentina or more recently Iceland defaulted, audited their debts or insisted their own terms for repayments. In Argentina, it took the President having to flee in helicopter under popular pressure. Not surprisingly, these countries all fare better than Greece, Spain or Portugal. Ecuador even went further and passed a constitution which prohibits the socialisation of private debts. Beforehand, an audit reviewing all debt contracts from 1956 to 2006, had proven the debt was odious, illegitimate and unconstitutional. During the 1980s and 1990s, Ecuador had spent 50% of its budget on debt repayments and 4% on healthcare. Rafael Correa, elected in 2006, decided debt repayments would no longer prevail on life. Thus, Ecuador declared the cessation of payment for 70% of Ecuador’s debt in bonds. But I guess you were not really willing to go against the neo-liberal agenda. People are though. They are prepared to take to the street. They already have in Scotland to call for the bedroom tax to be axed and it is no surprise people here were keen to hold you accountable Mr. Papandreou. It is not worth putting the blame on Brussels and financial markets [5], you also share some responsibility.

[1] Helen Walters, “Protesting Papandreou: Anti-auterity demonstrators at TEDGlobal 2013”, TED  Blog.

[2]  Katerina Kitidi and Aris Hatzistefanou, Debtocracy, 2011

[3] Nick Dearden, “Nick Dearden blogs from debt campaigner delegation to Greece”, Jubilee Debt Campaign.

[4] Nick Dearden, “Nick Dearden blogs from debt campaigner delegation to Greece”, Jubilee Debt Campaign.

[5] Helen Walters, “The failure of leadership in politics: George Papandreou at TEDGlobal 2013”, TED Blog.


Guatemala: a study in human rights abuses

10 December 2012

On International Human Rights day, Jubilee Scotland examines the role of debt and international financial institutions on the people of Guatemala, and questions the role Scotland could play in gobal development.

By Charlotte Snelling.

For much of the post-war period, Guatemala’s past has been a story of dictatorships, terror, and genocidal regimes. It is estimated that 200,000 people have died as a result of murder, torture, and extreme poverty whilst the country continues to be affected by a legacy of successive odious governments. It remains one of the most impoverished countries in Latin America and ranks at just 131 on the United Nations Human Development Index, out of a total of 187 countries. In the Americas, only Haiti ranks lower.[1]

A recent report by Jubilee Debt Campaign has been launched to investigate the build up of sovereign debt in Guatemala and the role this has played, and continues to play, in reproducing poverty across the country, particularly in its rural areas. It looks at how debt has been accumulated, the impact on the country’s economy, society, and population, as well as the steps needed to ensure the people of Guatemala are not left paying for the illegitimate actions and unfair treatment endured at the hands of their former leaders.

Guatemala has a long history of debt and exploitation by foreign powers. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the wave of terror was at its highest level, foreign lending to the country increased substantially. Successive loans of between $100 million and $300 million every year were granted from 1978 to 1982 and by 1985 Guatemala’s debt had reached $2.2 billion, an increase of over $2 billion in just 10 years. The majority of this debt was owed to multilateral institutions, in particular the World Bank, and today the country is still paying these institutions back over $400 million every year. This undoubtedly has important implications for Guatemala’s ability to rebuild and develop its economy alongside providing essential services to its citizens. Money which could otherwise be spent on moving people out of poverty and developing essential infrastructure is being shipped out of the country and into the pockets of Western lenders.

Guatemalan women commemorate Rio Negro massacre

Guatemala, March 2009. Dozens gather to commemorate the 27th anniversary of the Rio Negro Massacre at Pak’oxom Peak in 1982. Photo: James Rodríguez / MiMundo.org

Significantly however, the loans granted to Guatemala were crucial in supporting the decades of terror its population endured, funding ill-conceived, unsustainable projects which impoverished families and led to displacement and destruction of rural communities. The Chixoy Dam is just one example but one which highlights some of the worst effects of the World Bank’s irresponsible lending. [2]In the late 1970s and early 1980s the Chixoy Dam project, $400 million of its budget financed by the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank, acted only to exacerbate levels of violence and persecution against Guatemala’s indigenous people. In seeking to create a new reservoir as part of the project, the population of the Rio Negro region were threatened with eviction. When the local population resisted this pressure to move, their opposition was then exploited by the government as justification for counter-insurgency and increased violence against the Rio Negro community. It is estimated the project forcibly displaced more than 3,500 Mayan community members and led to 6,000 families suffering loss of land and livelihoods, with more than 400 people were massacred because of their opposition to the project. For the survivors the impact continues to be felt. A Probe International Report from 2001 states: “members of the Rio Negro community live in extreme poverty in comparison to neighbouring communities. However, before dam construction, the community enjoyed, relatively speaking, a high standard of living.”[3] Furthermore, World Bank loans for this project (and a second Chixoy Dam project in 1986) have cost Guatemalan governments $100 million in interest. The Chixoy Dam is a single example within a large back catalogue of odious debts originating from multilateral lending to Guatemala’s past dictatorial regimes. Worryingly the World Bank appears content to continue lending money to the country for new projects which threaten to exploit and impoverish even more communities.

As Barbara Rose Johnston at the Center for Political Ecology states, “the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank… loans were the primary source of foreign aid to a nation ruled by a military dictatorship engaged in systematic state-sponsored destruction of Mayan peoples”[4]. Debt accrued in the period was loaned to illegitimate and unaccountable governments of which the lenders were well aware whilst only minimal, if any, token investigations into possible impacts of projects were conducted. It is unjust for new governments to be saddled with these debts and responsibility must be shared by the countries and multilateral organisations which funded and supported projects at the expense of the Guatemalan people.

The experience of Guatemala and this new report show that something needs to change. Not only should these illegitimate and destructive debts be cancelled, the accumulation of new odious debt has to be prevented. Lobbying for an audit of the debt in Guatemala and campaigning to force the World Bank to overhaul its current policy and apply ethical principles of justice, fairness, and sustainability to its future lending will be vital in this process.

Importantly though, we should also be looking closer to home. In the UK, UK Export Finance (previously the Export Credit Guarantee Department), a semi-autonomous government body existing to support UK exporters to enter in to international markets considered risky and where the likelihood of failure is high, has been responsible for numerous dodgy deals similar to that seen in Guatemala. Deals where UKEF is involved are typically made in the arms trade, aerospace or fossil fuel related industry (over 75 percent of UKEF’s observable transactions) and are often based in countries with unstable governments, despotic regimes, and areas of conflict, which further compounds their negative effects. Egypt, for example, owes the UK approximately £100mn which includes loans for arms made to the regimes of both Mubarak and his predecessor Sadat. Between 1985 and 1986 UKEF supported £250mn of arms sale loans to finance a tank factory near Cairo and a military city west of Alexandria.[5] As in Guatemala, the Egyptian people are now left paying for the actions of the governments which previously oppressed them.

Scotland has an opportunity to take a stand against unethical lending. It seems possible that, whatever the result of the referendum, Scotland will be given the powers to create export credits. We must campaign here to ensure that this agency will not follow the route of corrupt deals, human rights abuses and disregard for environmental considerations that has characterised UKEF, but instead lead the way in being a positive and socially responsible export agency, setting an example internationally of how exporters can be supported in a way that is ethical and fair[6].


[1] Jubilee Debt Campaign, 2012: Generating Terror – the role of international financial institutions in sustaining Guatemala’s genocidal regimes, p3

[2] Jubilee Debt Campaign, 2012: Generating Terror – the role of international financial institutions in sustaining Guatemala’s genocidal regimes, pp9-12

[3] Goldman, P, Kelso, C, and Parikh, M, 2001: The Chixoy dam and the massacres at Rio Negro, Agua Fria, Xococ, and Los Encuentros: A Report on Multilateral Financial Institution Accountability, The Working Group on Multilateral Institution Accountability Graduate Policy Workshop, Princeton

[4] Johnston,  BR, 2011: An Open Letter to Your Excellency, Alvaro Colom Caballeros, President of the Republic of Guatemala (reproduced on Counterpunch on 22 March 2011 as part of her work with International Rivers)

[6] Jubilee Scotland, 2012: Scotland: a new start on debt and exports, http://www.jubileescotland.org.uk/April12/debtbriefing


Finance and Human Rights

4 January 2012

James Picardo, Campaign Director at Jubilee Scotland, spoke as part of the ‘Global Challenges’ series of events hosted by Edinburgh University. Here is what he said:

Economics on the one hand, and justice and human rights issues on the other hand, are often discussed as separate phenomena; as ways of looking at the world that don’t connect or intersect. But I believe that it’s of fundamental importance that we consider them alongside each other. In this blog I would like to use the example of Egypt’s arms debt to the UK to argue this point, touching on the gaps in international law and the importance of lending in the often violent shaping of the political map.

Jubilee Scotland is campaigning at the moment alongside its sister organisation – Jubilee Debt Campaign – for the cancellation of $100 million is owed by the Egyptian people to the UK government.

We are asking for it to be cancelled because we believe it to be an odious debt. An odious debt is one taken on by an unelected dictator – in this case Hosni Mubarak – the repayment for which is then demanded from the people of the country. This is the moral equivalent of someone breaking into your house and taking out a huge second mortgage against it, which you then have to repay when you get back into the house.

This would be enough to make the debt odious, but in the case of Egypt there is another layer to consider. The debt was used to pay for Rapier and Swingfire missiles, Lynx helicopters and a tank factory, weaponry which would actually have been used to shore up the illegitimate Mubarak regime. So to use our previous analogy, the house owner is also having to pay for the weapons that kept them out of their own house

Unfortunately, international law doesn’t recognise the concept of odious debt. This ties into the wider fact that it only recognises sovereign states and leaders; individuals, or whole peoples even, have no personality in its eyes. To go back to the house example, national law would seek to protect the interest of the party whose house had been stolen, but international law, if it operated the same way, would recognise the existence of the house, but assume that whoever was in charge of the house was the rightful owner – a kind of ‘finders-keepers’ approach to ownership. It is not a Code of Law in the true sense, as first formulated in ancient Babylon, because it does not protect the weak against the strong. It’s a system in which individuals – and whole peoples – are totally exposed to the Great Predators of the global economy: dictators, arms manufacturers, and lenders.

Mubarak’s arms debts are owed to a branch of the UK government called the Export Credit Guarantee Department (now renamed as UK Export finance), who use British tax-payers’ money to underwrite ‘high risk’ exports such as arms deals, meaning that both the arms exporter and the dictator remove themselves from the equation, leaving a debt owed by the people who suffered from the deal to us, the UK taxpayers.

The Export Credit Guarantee Department are the UK’s Export Credit Agency. Every major world power has one of these bodies, whose job it is to promote and support risky investments overseas. By using tax-payers’ money to underwrite deals they totally transform the risk profile of these risky deals, in effect creating a market where otherwise there wouldn’t be one.

For decades, Export Credit Agencies such as the ECGD have been used to set up trading relations with dictators in all parts of the world, including President Suharto in Indonesia and President Marcos in the Philippines. Their activities have provided domestic weapons manufacturers with stable overseas markets, have shored up regimes sympathetic to the West and have ensured a steady flow of debt repayments.

Export Credit Agency lending forms part of a wider portfolio of lending and aid – and it’s worth knowing that to qualify as ‘Overseas Development Assistance’ (the most widely used concept of aid) capital flows only have to have a 25% component of grant finances. This lending has been used for many decades to shape the map of the world, and to ensure that governments sympathetic to lending powers remained in charge of the house.

By sympathetic, we mean sympathetic to the supporting superpower, rather than sympathetic to the people of the country. As Franklin Roosevelt famously said of Nicaragua’s dictator Somoza, ‘he may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.’

Because the bloody origins of many of these debts are not widely discussed, all debt campaigners are frequently asked whether we should in fact cancel debts to poor countries without being very vigilant on how the money is spent. To my mind this would be shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. In the case of an Egypt or Indonesia the money for these debts has already been spent by a dictator on arms – often under the lender’s very vigilant eye.

Cancelling the debts is morally essential because it’s wrong to keep collecting money from the people whose oppression we have unwittingly colluded in. But if we are serious about stopping oppression we need to put a stop to bad lending, not just cancelling pre-existing bad debt.

In 1997, when Robin Cook became Foreign Secretary, he spoke of an ‘ethical foreign policy’. This statement was widely derided at the time as being a joke. In 1998, the scoffers were to some extent proved to be right, when the UK’s Export Credit Guarantee Department underwrote a huge sale of jet-fighters to the Indonesian dictator Suharto. The phrase ‘ethical foreign policy’ – even the idea of having an ethical foreign policy – became at this point even more bankrupt.

This trend needs I believe to be reversed. We may view ourselves as individuals, or as citizens of the world, we may campaign or give as individuals, and strive as campaigners to change the international system but we should not ignore the large proportion of our individual global impact which is mediated through UK foreign policy. It’s for this reason that, as well as building individual links with debt campaigners around the world, and while campaigning for an international system through which odious debts can be recognised and cancelled as as such, Jubilee Scotland also campaigns – alongside Campaign Against the Arms Trade and Amnesty International – for the radical reform of the Export Credit Guarantee Department.

Find our more about the campaign to end unfair lending at www.cleanupexports.org.uk and Jubilee Scotland at www.jubileescotland.org.uk


When creditors and debtors meet

1 December 2011

On October 5th, Jubilee Scotland  hosted a People’s Debt Tribunal at the Scottish Parliament, which saw Lidy Nacpil, representing Freedom from Debt Coalition Philippines and Jubilee South make the case for the cancellation of debt owed by the Philippines to the World Bank. Here an attendee of the Tribunal shares her thoughts.

‘Debt cancellation is a call not for charity but for justice’ – Lidy Nacpil.

By Olga Bloemen

We have a very fruitful partnership with the Philippines’, says the World bank ‘The World bank owes us for its damaging loans’, counters Filipino campaigner Lidy Nacpil. Jubilee Scotland is campaigning for the Scottish government to set up an international debt arbitration tribunal where creditors and debtors can meet. Thorough debt audits could help solve the debt crisis that is currently keeping developing countries in a poverty trap.

Third world debt seems to have disappeared from the public mind along with Jubilee 2000, Bono and Geldof. In 1998 and 2005, two initiatives pledged the one-off cancellation of the debts of 40 of the poorest countries. But, according to Jubilee Scotland, this remedy is ‘in many ways merely a sticking plaster’, offering too little too slowly: Many countries, like the Philippines, are excluded and debt is only cancelled to what is considered a ‘sustainable’ level, based on the country’s export earnings, while ignoring its domestic spending needs. Besides, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank demanded austerity measures in turn for debt cancellation like cuts on public spending and the privatisation of basic services, which many of the 40 countries have as yet not been able to meet.

This means that in 2008, the world’s poorest 48 countries still had debts totalling US$168 billion, and the 128 poorest together owed a dazzling total of US $3.7 trillion to multilateral bodies, individual countries, private companies, banks and individuals. Over the course of 2008 alone, the developing countries paid $602 billion towards servicing these debts. This year’s figures will be even higher, as the economic crisis has led developing countries to take up more loans. As a result, despite the aid rhetoric and the Millennium Development Goals, money keeps flowing from the Global South to the North instead of vice versa.

Many of the debts still stem from the 1960s and 1970s, when banks and governments in the North were eager to lend the huge amounts of money made from the rising oil prices to developing countries. Looking for Cold War allies, lending parties closed their eyes on corrupt or oppressive regimes and most of the money did not go into responsible hands and into development. In the 1970s and 1980s, the oil crisis led interest rates on the loans to soar. Additionally, falling commodity prices left countries with less hard currency to service the debts. The knock-on impact on exchange rates means that debts, which are most often counted in foreign currency, have skyrocketed in real terms for the affected countries. The debt total of US$3.7 trillion is the result.

Already since the early 1990s, campaigning organisations have called for an arbitration forum of some sort where historical cases of illegitimate or unfair debt can be lodged and solved, as well as unpayable debt relieved. With the 2010 Arbitration (Scotland) Act and the newly set up Scottish Arbitration Centre, Scotland would be a suitable host for such a tribunal. To demonstrate this, Jubilee Scotland organised a mock debt tribunal in Holyrood on the 5th of October. Here, the Philippines and the World bank met. Or, better said, Lidy Nacpil met “John Smith”, an actor who played, scarily realistically, a World bank representative quoting solely from the Bank’s official documents. In the debt tribunal, the legal principle of ex aequo et bono (“from equity and conscience”) was applied, according to which an arbitrator or tribunal has the power to move away from the law as laid down and to consider the case in the light of arguments of natural justice such as fairness and equity.

Lidy presented her country’s case: The New Economics Foundation has calculated that the Philippines need at least 63% debt cancellation in order for the government to meet the basic needs of its citizens, such as health, education and infrastructure, without taxing those living below the ‘ethical poverty line’ of $3 a day. According to a recent study, 107 countries are burdened with an ‘unpayable debt’ like the Philippines.

Former president Marcos, who governed the country from 1965 to 1985, left the Philippines with more than half of its current foreign debt. Although democratically elected, Marcos turned the Philippines into a dictatorship with martial law in 1972. When he fled the country in 1985, the country’s debt had gone from US$1 billion to of US$28 billion, most of it either stolen by Marcos or invested in failed or useless projects. The Bataan nuclear power plant is notorious in this regard. It was built by the US company Westinghouse on an earthquake fault-line at the foot of a volcano and has therefore remained unused. Westinghouse got paid generously nevertheless as the US government credit agency took over the standing debt. In 2007, the Filipino government finally completed paying off the $1.5 billion for the plant’s construction, more than 30 years after it began. As Marcos’ regime devastated the country’s economy, subsequent governments had to continue taking on loans to pay off the old ones.

During the fourteen-year dictatorship, the World bank granted five loans to Marcus. Now, the Philippines still owe the World bank around US $3 billion out of a total foreign debt of US $47,5 billion. The original loans from the World bank have long since been repaid, but because the interest has compounded, 80% of the debt is still owed. If nothing changes, Filipino taxpayers will continue to pay for the illegitimate debts of Marcos until 2025, 39 years after he was overthrown. While ‘Smith’ glorified the loans as an investment in pro-poor development, Lidy Nacpil said there is little evidence that the World bank has had any positive impact at all. ‘Debt cancellation is a call not for charity but for justice’, Nacpil concluded.

Of course, one could argue that debt cancellation would create poor incentives by making future borrowers hope that they will have their debts waived too. Also, developing countries are dependent on loans and if creditors would stop this flow of money due to lack of trust in return, the result could be disastrous, especially now in times of economic downturn. This, however, would relieve Northern countries of responsibility too easily. As we have seen, a major part of the third world debt is the result of the self-interested and reckless lending of first world creditors during the Cold War. Filipino people are currently forced to pay off a loan that was not taken up in their name and went to support an undemocratic dictator. The World bank could have reasonably foreseen this and should thus assume responsibility. Besides, one could argue that the Filipino people themselves never had a contractual arrangement with the World Bank.

The envisioned debt tribunal is just one step in creating a fairer lending system. Future loans should be given responsibly, on fair terms, and in a transparent way that is open to scrutiny by parliaments, media and citizens. Any loans given on unjust terms should be considered the responsibility of the creditor and thus eligible for cancellation in future. Jubilee’s mock tribunal demonstrated that debt arbitration can be done fairly and effectively. Or would it take a Bono to convince the Scottish government?


Malawi’s debt relief enigma

14 July 2008

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


Jubilee Scotland and Jubilee Debt Campaign meet the ECGD

12 June 2008

Kusfiardi’s last engagement was on Thursday the 5th of June, when we went with our colleague Sarah Williams from Jubilee Debt Campaign to meet officials from the Export Credit Guarantee Department, the UK government department who ensured – and are currently collecting repayments for – the bad loans that are the focus of our campaign. 

I had noticed throughout the speaker tour that the more confrontational and technical his interlocutors, the more Ardi rose to the challenge, and this meeting was no exception. He refused to be intimidated by the plutocratic architecture of Canary Wharf – ‘the elevator is speaking to us’ he remarked with a smile as we disembarked on the 13th floor of Exchange Tower – and repeatedly brought the discussion back to the core concerns of our campaign.

Ardi stressed the difficulty the people of Indonesia had in finding their feet when around 60% of their taxes went to debt repayments. He did not beg, but stressed the growth of a strong grass-roots movement in his country that was increasingly pushing the Indonesian government to de-recognise it’s illegitimate debts. Within this context I suggested that the Jubilee ‘Lift the Lid’ campaign, with its emphasis on an international and multilateral consensus on odious debts, was worthy of their serious attention.

It’s difficult to gauge how much of this serious attention we got. Certainly the meeting room was stuffed with officials of some seniority, including the CEO – Patrick Crawford. We encountered some of the usual red herrings – including the obligatory statement that it is pointless for the UK to clean up its own act when China behaves in the way it does. We were also told that standards had improved in the last few years, and that no new deals are being made to Indonesia.

While these last statements are possibly true, they are impossible to verify as long as so many ECGD-backed deals remain shrouded in commercial confidentiality. And while it felt exciting to expose this most business-minded of departments to the views of a campaigner from the Global South, it will clearly to be difficult for our campaign to make headway while the accounts of this secretive organisation remain closed to the public. To lift the lid, in other words, it may first be necessary to open the books.