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.

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Nigerian Debt Scam: UK not implicated

1 February 2008

It’s general knowledge that the UK’s vast increase in development aid (ODA) from 05-07 consists largely of Nigeria’s debt buy-back. Net UK ODA increased by £2.5 billion 04-06, of which Nigeria’s debt cancellation counted for £1.7 billion. (Net ODA in 04 was £4.3 billion, in 06 it was £6.8 billion, as set out in DFID’s Statistics on International Development.)

We’ve long complained that debt relief should not be counted as aid, on the grounds that debt cancellation is not new money going into a country, but old money not leaving the country. It’s a difference that can’t be captured just by looking at the accounting, though: one has to think about the history and ethics of the money. This makes the argument slightly shakey.

But recently we’ve been concerned about it for another reason. According to the international accounting rules for debt cancellation (set by the OECD), cancellation of military debts cannot be counted towards overseas aid targets. The UK has made some fairly significant steps towards reaching the 0.7% GNI target, going from about 0.36% GNI in 2003-04, to 0.51% in 2006-07. We been wondering, though, whether this level has been reached by counting the write-off of military debts towards the 0.7% target – that is, by breaking the OECD rules.

All of the debt cancelled for (or rather: bought back from) Nigeria was export credit debt, that is, old commercial debts that had been guaranteed by the UK and Nigerian governments. On average, around 40% of export credits are for arms. If this percentage held for Nigeria’s debts, then around 40% of Nigeria’s debts should not be counted towards the UK’s 0.7% aid target. This would mean that, potentially, the UK would have to reduce its ODA by £700 million (about 40% of £1.7 billion).

Given Nigeria’s history of military dictatorships, and the vast amounts of money that elites in that country have had for prestige projects, it surely would not be surprising if Nigeria had military debts to the UK.

We asked DFID whether they had gone through Nigeria’s debts before cancellation, and excluded the military debts, but they didn’t have the information. So Gavin Strang MP asked a Parliamentary Question on our behalf, which was answered very promptly, which was great, and the answer came back:

Arms Trade: Nigeria

Dr. Strang: To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform what proportion of export credit outstanding at the end of financial year 2004-05 for Nigeria was for military goods. [180895]

Malcolm Wicks [holding answer 28 January 2008]: Information on ECGD business supported prior to 1991 is not held on a basis which enables defence to be identified separately from other sectors. ECGD has however supported no defence business on Nigeria since that date. (29 Jan 2008 : Column 202W)

The first part of the answer means that military debts cancellation may have been counted towards the 0.7% target, but that there is no record of what this is. The second part of the question, though, would be great news if true, since it would mean that the Abacha regime received no official military support from the UK. UK arms sales to Africa, however, according to the Observer:

UK arms sales to Nigeria [are] up tenfold since 2000 to £53m, including armoured vehicles and large calibre artillery. (June 12, 2005)

Now, Nigeria is surely a risky market (though markets warmed to it immediately after the debt cancellation); and the Export Credit Guarantee Department exists to support UK exports into risky markets. Furthermore, export credits were being provided well into the 90s for exports to Indonesia, so why baulk at Nigeria?

It therefore seems absolutely incredible that the Export Credit Guarantee Department has guaranteed no loans to Nigeria since 1991. Absolutely, mind-stunningly, incredible. Totally, discombobulatingly, extra-terrestrially incredible. However, there can be no doubt that the answer to the Parliamentary Question is entirely accurate.