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

Advertisements

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


Economical with food for thought

21 April 2008

This week’s Economist says something puzzling:

The middling poor, those on $2 a day, are pulling children from school and cutting back on vegetables so they can still afford rice. Those on $1 a day are cutting back on meat, vegetables and one or two meals, so they can afford one bowl. The desperate—those on 50 cents a day—face disaster.

Puzzling because it neglects that the poverty metrics cited are “purchasing power parity” figures, pegged to 1993 US prices. That means the “middling poor” are living on the equivalent of that could have been purchased in the US, in 1993, for $2 (Pogge and Reddy set this out [PDF]). People on $2 PPP US 1993/day are not sending their children to school and buying vegetables (at least in any reasonable quantity). So to describe them as “middling poor” is tendentious in the extreme. “Tendentious in the extreme” means: “wrong”. The description of the eating habits of “the middling poor” and their less fortunate cousins in the lower categories is also “tendentious in the extreme.” Those on $1 PPP US 1993/day are not cutting out meat, ‘cos they’re not eating it.

The Economist reserves the adjective “desperate” for those on 50c (presumably 50c PPP US 1993/day). Such verbal economy leaves a vague but reassuring impression that things are not after all really all that bad. But I doubt any letters will be published next week insisting that the description “middling poor” should be reserved to those in industrial countries living on less than 60% of the national median household income (ref here).

After all, comes the standard riposte, we’re talking “absolute” rather than “relative” poverty. I think this is a bogus distinction: it lets the complexity of defining “poverty” act as a convenient buffer against the truth. New economics foundation takes life expectancy as the key determining factor in defining poverty, and defines an “ethical poverty line” of $3 PPP/day. At $3 PPP/day people in general live for their whole genetic lifespan; where poverty cuts life short, it certainly breaks human rights.

Let’s at least not describe as “middling poor” people who fall below this line. And let’s at least not restrict the epithet “desperate” to only those who live (on average) on for a couple of dozen years. Brief existences, true; but perhaps still not unworthy of fair treatment by the self-described “authoritative weekly newspaper.”

But perhaps there is a little more to say on this matter. The Economist’s enlightening account of “The food crisis and how to solve it” seems to have been occasioned by a quotation from Josette Sheeran, Executive Director of the World Food Programme. Sheeran was chosen for the job after consultation with UN Secretary General then-elect Ban Ki Moon. Apparently, there was some concern regarding her previous association with another moon, viz: Rev. Sun Myung and his Unification Church. Some unkind people have called “Moonies.”

The Washington Post writes:

Sheeran said of her candidacy, “I don’t know why personal faith has any relation or bearing,” adding: “It is a matter of record that I have no association with the Unification Church.”

This doesn’t appear to the the Post‘s view, which writes (same link):

The Bush administration [which nominated her – ed] was sensitive to the possibility that Sheeran’s former membership in the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church would emerge as an issue in the race. A U.S. official pressed The Washington Post not to mention Sheeran’s past links to the church, saying it was inappropriate to describe her religious affiliation.

But enough of Ms Sheeran’s quasi-religious interests. They are personal matters, and irrelevant. Suffice to say that someone who thinks living on $2 PPP US 1993/day counts as being “middling poor”, is in charge of the “world’s safety net”, the World Food Programme.

Max Hiatus at DebtTribunal


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.


G8 in Rostock: The State of Debt

7 June 2007

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

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

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

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

Debt and poverty: the trends and debates.

Level of reduction

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

Meanwhile:

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

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

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

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

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

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