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.

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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?


January Campaign Update on Indonesia

1 February 2008

Jubilee Scotland is currently trying to convince the UK government to cancel the >£500 million it’s owed by Indonesia. This is a small goal within a much broader international objective, which is to promote the doctrine of ‘odious debt’.

‘Odious debt’ is a concept which enjoys some international credibility, but not nearly enough! Put simply, it is based on the idea that, if a dictator takes out loans for violent, abusive or simply frivolous purposes, his people should not be required to pay back the debt after he has gone. Every victory of debt-cancellation on this basis – and there are many such campaigns all over the world – strengthens this important doctrine.

Why is there any need for this? What was wrong with campaigning for debt cancellation solely on the basis of a country’s poverty? Here are a couple of reasons to be going along with, although there are plenty more.

Firstly, the existing debt-cancellation mechanisms demand that a country be branded as a ‘Heavily Indebted Poor Country’ before it qualifies for debt relief. It is obvious why this is demeaning.

Secondly, if debt cancellation is enacted on the basis of bad lending, it turns the spotlight back on the lender, and perhaps makes them think twice about dealing with dictators in the future.

This is a global movement within which Jubilee Scotland plays a small part. Jubilee USA are campaigning, for example, on cancelling the debts extended to Haiti’s infamous Duvalier regime, the European anti-debt coalition EURODAD is working to get government’s to sign a declaration of responsible lending, while the Norwegian government has already cancelled its debts to Ecuador and other countries on the grounds of illegitimacy.

More to follow…


World Bank Debt Cancellation – a TOTAL scam?

3 July 2006

On the face of it, the G8 debt deal is a scam. The money that qualifying countries save on debt repayments is almost entirely balanced by a corresponding cut in the aid that they receive from the World Bank.

The G8’s debt deal seems to work like this: the financial flows out of the country represented by debt service payments are cut, and at the same time there is a cut in the financial flows into the country represented by World Bank development aid. Result: countries find themselves in pretty much (not quite, but pretty much) the same situation they were in in the first place. They are paying less debt service and receiving less aid.

I would love to hear from people who think I’ve got this wrong – particularly if you work at the Bank and worked on the deal. As, if it’s not wrong, the G8 Debt Deal (the “Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative” or MDRI) is a near-total scam.

Not a total scam, though, for at least three reasons. For one thing, the IMF (International Monetary Fund) has cancelled its share of the debts of (pretty much) those nineteen countries. This happened in January, and doesn’t seem to have the same caveats as the World Bank proposal. But the IMF’s debt only amounted about 10% of the debt cancellation package agreed by (actually: prior to) the G8 in Gleneagles.

Second, the World Bank is generally upping its aid to the countries that are supported by the IDA (International Development Association), so even after their aid is cut to offset the debt cancellation, they will be in a better situation than before. Only not much better. According to a report from EURODAD (based on report from Debt Relief International here) the net benefit of the World Bank’s part of the debt deal ranges between $53 million a year to $1 million a year (mean benefit about $13 million), with the money being awarded according to what the World Bank thinks of national social and economic policy. Big winners are Ethiopia ($53m), Tanzania ($39m) and Uganda ($27m); little winners are Guyana ($1m), Bolivia ($4m), Niger ($5m). These are the figures which – as far as I can tell – represent the true value of the G8 Debt Deal.

Third, because the debt cancellation, even if offset by a cut in development aid, might leave the governments of the countries in question in a better position to respect their own internal democratic processes in setting economic and development policy. Last week Susan George came to Edinburgh (where I’m writing this) and spoke at the Scottish Parliament. Debt, she says, is power: the creditors have great influence over economic policy in the developing countries. For someone who takes this view (as I do), the G8 debt cancellation ought to be welcome since it might make a political difference even if the financial difference is small. But in the present case, the debt cancellation is only available to countries that have already satisfied the IMF that they will adopt and pursue strong programmes of adjustment and reform – to countries, it seems, that have already had the power exercised over them.

The World Bank debt deal has had a lot of publicity: Reuters/ABC tells us, for example, that $2.7 billion of cancellation has been granted to Zambia. Wonderful! And what’s the overall benefit to them this year? errr… $7 million (according to EURODAD).

I am very cynical about cynicism: it can be very superficially attractive (think only of Han Solo), and it’s a great way to make oneself look more clever than one actually is: but generally speaking it’s a rocky road. This isn’t meant to be cynical; it’s mean to be sceptical. If anyone thinks I am missing something, if there’s a substantial reason why this debt deal really is to be welcomed, I’d like to hear it.

Ben at Jubilee Scotland


The Debt Tribunal in 2006

30 June 2006

The day before the G8 Summit in Scotland, 2005, Jubilee Scotland held a public debate on what the prospects were for a real resolution to the global debt crisis. I was worried that the G8 mobilisations would bypass ordinary people in Edinburgh; that people would come along to the Make Poverty History march but never have the chance to meet the amazing individuals who were gathering in Edinburgh from around the world. Unless we did something to counter this, the G8 Summit might end up being like the Edinburgh Festival – a massive activity which passes on, leaving no lasting or meaningful impression on life in Scotland’s capital.

So we set up the 2005 Debt Tribunal, and it was stunning: I mean, I knew it would work, but I didn’t expect someone to come up to me and kiss me at the end: in my book, that’s positive feedback.

It worked because we used a good mass discussion methodology (drawn from the Edinburgh Active Citizens Group), and because we had great speakers – Lidy Nacpil from the Philippines, Charity Musamba from Zambia, Rachel Ordu from Nigeria, Romulo Torres from Peru (with Gail Hurley from EURODAD translating) and Chris Gekonge from Kenya. The audience was amazing too; at the start I made a jokey reference to Daleks (Dr Who had just restarted in the UK at the time) and realised that this international setting was probably the worst possible place to make it.

The results of the discussion were put into the structured diagram or “Argument map” you can see below; please do have a look at the map and give us your comments. In less than a week, we will have our second debt tribunal, and we would like this blog to help us prepare for it.

Ben at Jubilee Scotland