The following text was the basis of a presentation entitled "Third World Debt" given at Cambridge University's "One World Week" in February 2002
One kind of terrorism hasn't been making the news recently. Its weapon is debt, and it is a most efficient killer.
"Relieved of their annual debt repayments, the severely indebted countries could use the funds for investments that in Africa alone would save the lives of about 21 million children by 2000 and provide 90 million girls and women with access to basic education"
UNDP Human Development Report 1997, p. 93
The poor nations of the world are told that if they borrow and invest wisely, they will be able to repay their debts and more. But they've been hearing this for fifty years, and the debt just keeps on growing.
|Developing country debt ($bn)
|Actual payments of interest plus principal ($bn)
|IMF World Economic Outlook 2001
Western economists tell the developing world that growth will generate sufficient wealth for all their people. But ours is a very unequal world, so when the growth comes few people see its benefits.
"225 people own more wealth than the poorest 2.5 billion people"
UNDP Human Development Report 1998
The development institutions trumpet their aid to the world, to show that something is being done. But what is given with one hand, is taken back many times over with the other. According to the World Bank, in 1999 Angola received $261m in aid but paid $1144m in debt service, Cameroon received $190m in aid but paid $549m in debt service, Kenya received $195m in aid but paid $716m in debt service, and Vietnam received 257m in aid but paid 1410m in debt service (Global Development Finance, 2001).
When charity pop concerts for Africa are held in London or New York, the tens of millions raised are typically enough to pay the continent's interest bill for a few hours. In 1999, the developing countries excluding the Eastern block were more than $2,030 billion in debt to the developed world (Global Development Finance, 2001). In 2000, the IMF put the figure for total developing country debt at $2,140 billion (World Economic Outlook, 2000). Some $700 million per day now flows in debt repayment from the developing world to the developed world (UNDP Human Development Report, 1997).
If we examine some basic indicators of wellbeing, we can begin to see the physical consequences of the debt. In 1995 the industrialised countries experienced child mortality (the number of deaths at less than 5 years of age per 1000 live births) at a rate of 16. In south Asia the figure was 109, and in sub-Saharan Africa it was 169 (UNDP Human Development Report 1998). This should not surprise us. In Tanzania, debt repayment was six times spending on healthcare, whilst in Uganda annual spending was £2 per person on healthcare and £11.50 per person on debt repayment (Jubilee 2000).
According to the United Kingdom's Department for International Development in 2000, 1.2 billion people live in "abject poverty", meaning that they have no basic medical care, nutrition or housing. In the sub-Sahara, 48% of people go without health services, 48% of people are without safe water and 42% are illiterate, whilst in south-Asia the corresponding figures are 22%, 18% and 49.5%. Measured in 1987 US Dollars, GDP per capita in sub Sahara was $520 and in South Asia $521, whilst in the Industrialised Countries it was $12,764 (1995 figures compiled in UNDP Human Development Report, 1998).
Things don't seem to be getting better either. Real wages in most African countries have fallen by more than 50% since 1980 (Jubilee 2000). According to The Centre for Economic Policy Research in 2001, more than three-quarters of the world's countries had a growth rate at least 5% lower in the 1980-2000 period than in the 1960-1980 period. China is one major exception, but not because it took advice from the World Bank and IMF. (Far from it in fact. China has been one of the few countries to completely reject IMF and World Bank advice, opting instead for protectionism, an inconvertible currency and a state controlled banking system.) In 1996 the UN said that the poorest third of the world's people are getting poorer. Even the World Bank has admitted that, between 1987 and 1998, the number of people in absolute poverty (meaning that they survive on less than $1 per day) increased from 1200 million to 1500 million.
Among the various actors in this sad tale, the World Bank and the IMF stand tall. Established under the Bretton Woods arrangements in 1944, the World Bank was to provide development assistance for non-commercial projects, and the IMF was to assist nations in short term balance of payments difficulties and act to ensure currency stability. Often mentioned in the same breath, but entirely separate, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) was established in 1995 as the successor to GATT (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) in order to implement free trade and global standardisation among the world's nations. When it comes to defining country types, there is some variation in the methodology of the supranational institutions. Generally speaking, each recognises developing, transitional and developed countries. The OECD's Development Assistance Committee separates developing and transitional countries according to GNP per capita. Here, "developing" includes "least developed" and "low income" countries which had a GNP per capita below $760 in 1998. In 2002, UNCTAD listed 49 "least developed" countries. The WTO meanwhile allows members to self-select themselves as "developed" or "developing" but, where trade privileges are available to developing countries, one country may challenge another's self-selection.
Some two thirds of Third World debt is owed to commercial lenders, and one-third to multilateral lenders (these are lenders, such as the World Bank, who have the right to exercise discretionary dispersal of contributions from members). It is important to keep in mind that when figures for total external debt are given, they normally comprise the public and the private foreign currency debt owed by a country. Debt owed in a country's own currency does not usually present a debt burden for that country because the domestic government can manufacture its own money to repay its debt (one exception is where a currency board or strict peg has been adopted). On the other hand, developing countries cannot manufacture US Dollars or other Western currencies and so debts owed by developing countries to the developed world can indeed become a desperate financial burden.
Apart from the definitional nuances, there are also some statistical traps to be aware of. It is necessary to distinguish between the 'nominal debt' of a country and the 'present value' of its debt. Since the interest payment on a $10 loan made at 10% is equal to the interest payment on a $100 loan at 1%, loans at subsidised rates of interest that are made to some countries can be stated on a present value basis in order to understate the amount of debt that is owed. For example, in 1999, the nominal versus present-valued debt for Benin was $1.62 billion versus $0.70 billion, and for Burundi $1.06 billion versus $0.54 billion. Another statistical trap is that debt service (quoted as interest plus principal as a percentage of export revenue, or as a percentage of government revenue) may be compiled on the basis of what is actually paid rather than what was contracted to be paid. Debt service figures may therefore appear as if they are not worsening, whereas these figures only remain steady because the country in question is at the limit of what it can pay.
After fifty years at the helm of development policy, a variety of excuses have emerged from the international financial establishment in respect of their performance. The "corrupt dictators" argument is one that seems to have stuck well in the public's mind but, like the others, it fails to stand up to close inspection. Is the whole of the developing world corrupt? If it is, did Western lenders really not recognise that fact until thousands of billions of dollars had been lent over many decades? Is the whole of the developing world corrupt, or just its leaders? If so, who schooled its leaders, who promoted them and who supported them? Have the Western powers played no part in this? Serious readers of history don't need me to answer that question of course.
The "recycled petrodollars" argument is similarly lacking in merit as an explanation of the Third World debt problem. In fact, the debt problem had commenced long before the oil price rises of the 1970's. Egypt in the 1860's, the Ottomans in the 1870's, and in the 1930's almost all of South America defaulted on their debt to the industrialised countries. In the 1960's, Brazil, Turkey and Argentina were among those rescheduling once again. If the Third World debt problem is not post Oil Crisis, we can hardly hold petrodollar recycling to blame for it.
Another modern habit is to define away those problems that cannot be cured, or to invent new measures if the old ones prove too embarrassing. One example is this:
"Opening up their economies to the global economy has been essential in enabling many developing countries to develop competitive advantages in the manufacture of certain products. In these countries, defined by the World Bank as the 'new globalizers' (World Bank, Globalization, Growth, and Poverty: Facts, Fears, and an Agenda for Action) the number of people in absolute poverty declined by over 120 million (14 percent) between 1993 and 1998".
IMF staff papers, Global Trade Liberalization and the Developing Countries, November 2001
Well done to the propaganda department at the World Bank. It must have taken a long time to think that one up. It reminds me of the way that unemployment was reduced in the UK under the Thatcher government during the 1980's; a sharp monetary expansion combined with over 100 changes to the definition of the word "unemployed".
Then there are those factually correct statements that border upon plain distortion because they omit one or more pieces of crucial information. Michael Rowbotham in Goodbye America, 2000 gives the example of Uganda, cited by ex US Treasury secretary Larry Summers as a country that had experienced several years of growth under World Bank policy during the 1990's. The bit that was missed out was the fact that Uganda's per capita income in 2000 was 30% less than in 1983. Technically Summers was correct, there had been "several years of growth", but only after the policies prescribed in Washington had encouraged a catastrophic collapse.
More weighty still is the combined criticism of developing country experts from around the world that Rowbotham has assembled. For example:
"The total collapse of the monetarist experiment in Chile is a salutary lesson in the failure of IMF prescriptions, even when applied in their most rigorous form and by a government totally committed to their success"
Latin America Bureau, The Poverty Brokers, 1983.
"In the last ten years, the whole IMF policy has been nothing but a failure. All its prognoses were proved wrong, and its policies and measures had an opposite effect from what had been expected"
Singer, H. & Sharma, S. (eds) Economic Development and Third World Debt, 1983.
And in Africa:
"There is a very broad consensus among African governments that the IMF and World Bank terms are often harsh and unsuitable generated severely adverse effects on the overall economies of these countries especially with regard to agriculture, manufacture and foreign trade"
Conference of the Institute for African Alternatives, Onimode, B. [ed.], The IMF, the World Bank Bank and African Debt, Zed Books, 1989.
The philosophy that got much of the world into this dreadful mess has a long pedigree. It began with Benthamite self-interest and ended in the belief that profit maximisation was the goal of human activity. This belief has gone so far that the West now seems to be forgetting that not all wealth is measured in terms of money. Happiness, a stress-free life and environmental quality are some examples of wealth that is not given a monetary value and therefore does not appear in our calculations of GDP. Yet we attach such holiness to GDP that all our efforts are focussed upon increasing it. In 1989, Daly and Cobb calculated that there had been a decrease of 40% in the quality of life in the USA since 1970, based upon adverse changes in factors such as the working week, pollution, stress levels and divorce rates. The Centre for Economic Policy Research in the USA says that the median US real wage was the same in 2000 as it was in 1973, so even most Americans have not shared the growth that the USA is said to have experienced. What hope then for the people of the developing world where wealth inequality is that much higher and "growth" that much lower?
In modern capitalist societies production is generally guided by what makes profit, not by what satisfies need. Normally this would be fine because everyone with a need would have sufficient money to satisfy it. But in an economic system based upon usury and fractional reserve banking, the commercial banks have created a scarcity of money and it is this scarcity that prevents some of the people and nations from fulfilling their requirements. Ignorant of usury, on occasion denying its existence, the conventional economists have failed to promote this analysis of the problem. Instead we are treated to all manner of hocus pocus theories and remedies. As each remedy fails, the public becomes ever more cynical. What we need is a holistic vision, but what we get is tunnel vision, the language of target ranges and accounting ratios. One day the experts will realise that good statistics are driven by a healthy economy, not the other way round.
Like the "war on terrorism", the "free trade and free markets" mantra has acquired a life of its own. Everything seems to be justifiable, even hunger, if free trade or free markets are involved. Like other mantras, the free trade variety is full of irony. In this case the irony arises because Third World producers have often found themselves selling resources to effective monopoly buyers from the West. The irony continues further because, despite the use of the word "free", for many developing countries "free trade" amounts to no more than the exploitation of their unskilled labour by a foreign multinational. Developing countries accept this situation largely because of the debt trap. Any source of foreign currency is better than none when interest charges need to be paid. Often, weak regulation (on pollution and labour rights, for example) is used to attract foreign direct investment. At the end of it all the developing countries are too often left with a cut down rainforest, an inconsequential skill set, and a pile of debt that still needs to be repaid.
When advice arrives for the developing countries, it too frequently rides on a World Bank or IMF horse. It is their advisors who dominate government departments in developing countries, often stationed there as part of the conditionality for previous aid packages. Joe Stiglitz, former chief economist at the World Bank, is particularly scathing of the World Bank's approach to providing financial assistance for developing countries. A country investigation, according to him, involves little more than a close investigation of a country's Five Star hotels. After this, a begging finance minister is presented with a pre-drafted restructuring agreement for 'voluntary' signing. The agreement typically comprises the standard one-size fits-all components of: 1) privatisation; 2) capital market liberalisation; 3) market based pricing; and 4) free trade. The corporate agenda and absolutist ideology is unmistakable.
In the case of Ecuador the absolutism went so far as a recommendation to take the US Dollar as the country's currency, even though the World Bank itself admitted that this would push 51% of the population below the poverty line. This kind of thing can only be the result of heartless Darwinism invading the space of development economics. The strong will survive, they tell us, as if the weak can be left to die like animals in the jungle.
The weakness of academic discourse in the face of the commercial and economic realities is unsurprising given that so much research is funded by the financial establishment itself. The mighty World Bank determines much of the discourse in development economics because it is one of the most financially powerful institutions on the block. Other cultures, and other paradigms, just don't fit the Washington consensus. Some of the worst double standards of Western policy can be seen here, where the academic and the political meet.
For example, the Borrow/Invest/Export/Repay development model continues to be promoted even when, as Rowbotham reminds us, not one developing country has gone into debt with the IMF and World Bank and subsequently paid it off. There is the typical IMF response to budget and trade deficits in the developing world, namely that the country in question should engage an austerity programme. Why is the USA, the world's biggest debtor and holder of the biggest trade deficit, not implementing this advice itself? Then we have the Bush administration authorising an extra $48 billion in weapons procurement expenditure, whilst the UN is telling us that $80 billion invested annually will eradicate poverty in the developing countries and thereby benefit one billion people. Isn't the best way to protect America from hateful foreigners to make their lives bearable back home?
The host of contradictions continues. Western governments often argue that debt finance is acceptable if projects are self-liquidating. So why don't they advance finance to developing countries on a profit sharing basis instead of charging interest? The IMF and the World Bank insist that the Third World must remove subsidies, for example in agriculture, but the developed world pays hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies to agriculture, for example by means of the Common Agricultural Policy in Europe. As Stiglitz points out, the Third World is advised to remove barriers to trade and stop protecting domestic industry, but no developed country succeeded in becoming developed like this. (Japan had protection and promoted its Keiretsu model for many decades. The USA had tariffs throughout the nineteenth century. England had a colonial empire to sustain it. Even supposedly successful transitional nations such as South Korea adopted protectionism in the twentieth century.)
It has been asked elsewhere why, if international competition really is so good, foreign doctors lawyers and dentists are not allowed to enter the United States in greater numbers? If US medical salaries were at the European level, then the US would save tens of billions of dollars annually in care costs, certainly much more than the few hundred millions of dollars of annual saving estimated to have been made due to trade liberalisation under the WTO in 1995 (General Accounting Office, USA). Well there's a restrictive trade lobby for doctors and lawyers of course, we know that, but when do we ever hear the free traders in the WTO, IMF and World Bank complaining about it?
The major supranational institutions urge transparency of procedures in accountancy standards and talk increasingly about accountability and other fine democratic principles, but when it comes to their own behaviour these principles are often nowhere to be seen. For example, IMF board meetings rarely record the voting pattern of directors and don't release minutes. The US controls 17% of the voting rights at the IMF executive, and then we find that major decisions such as an amendment of the IMF's Articles or use of its gold reserves require an 85% majority. The IMF board of directors has one seat each for the USA, Japan, Germany, France, UK, Saudi Arabia, Russia and China, but large groupings of other countries find themselves allotted one or two directors only. Thus the whole of Africa has had only two directors, a wholly inadequate state of affairs given that it is incurring much of the debt burden. Then at the WTO we find that three bureaucrats can meet in secret to determine disputes against governments who interfere with the freedom of trade.
Amidst all these contradictions, it is hard to see where the principles meet the practice. The Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative is a good example of the public relations exercise that can be used to dress up ineffectual policy on a grand scale. The HIPC was portrayed in many quarters as an effort on the part of the world's rich countries to reduce the burden of the most heavily indebted poor countries. In fact, its scope was so restricted, so subjected to conditionality, that it was hopelessly ineffectual.
HIPC was to apply where economic mismanagement and corruption could be shown to have resulted in the wastage of borrowed money. It therefore excluded all those situations in which World Bank or IMF mismanagement and corruption might have been shown to be the cause of the debt build up and, worse still, allowed these institutions to define the meaning of 'sound management' when their own practices are often far from sound.
By the "decision point", the point at which debt relief could be agreed, an HIPC country had to have adopted a Poverty Reduction Structural Plan (PRSP). If the net present value of the HIPC debt was greater than 150% of exports (or greater than 250% of fiscal revenues in the case of internationally "open economies") then international lenders would commit to provide debt relief by the "completion point". At the completion point, the HIPC country had to have implemented the PRSP for at least one year, and have met various financial targets set by the World Bank.
Those were the hurdles. So what about the performance?
41 countries fell within the scope of the HIPC initiative, having a total of $205 billion in debt. HIPC therefore excluded some 90% of developing country debt. 23 HIPC countries had reached the decision point by September 2001, and these received $20.7 billion in debt relief. In other words, by September 2001, some 1% of developing country debt had been addressed. Of the 23 countries to have passed the decision point, 4 reached the completion point by the end of 2001. Among these 4 countries, debt service was reduced by up to 50%. Total developing country debt service payments were thereby cut by $1.1bn annually, a reduction of some $3 million per day in the context of total daily debt repayments exceeding $700 million.
HIPC is big on fanfare, small on substance and it is not a cure. In fact the financial establishment is incapable of providing a cure for the debt problem, because that would require its own abolition. We cannot ask a financial system that has grown up on usury and fractional reserve banking to give up usury and fractional reserve banking. The continued procession of monetary crises in the developing world should by now have focussed the media spotlight upon these two practices, but the spotlight remains firmly directed at the "corrupt dictators", "inefficient practices", "inflexible labour forces", in fact anything and everything except the current policies of the lenders themselves. (Past policies on the other hand can quite often be the subject of self-criticism by IMF and World Bank executives because such honesty disarms the critics, makes it look as if the mistakes of the past have been recognised and rectified, and helps to show some humility.)
The Islamic solutions to the problems that we face are based upon an entirely different philosophy to that of capitalist liberalism. Muslims know that economic growth is not the objective of life. The true objective is to worship Allah and this does not require economic growth, nor necessarily imply it. Of course, if it enables us to improve the quality of life there is nothing wrong in having economic growth, but we are dealing with a question of priorities here, of worshipping growth or God. It is becoming clearer by the day in the West that materialism, like all forms of godless self-interest, cannot support the social structures that are essential to the survival of society. Trust is one such structure, without which society will collapse in the long run, but trust and materialism have never been the best of friends.
Once, when the Muslims adhered to the rules of Allah, the world was a very different place. It was characterised by peace and justice, not usury and debt Holocaust. Even for non-Muslims it was a Golden Age, one that thrived for almost 1300 years. Now Islam has been relegated to the back room, and the bankers have assumed the controls. To put debt relief in the hands of such men is like putting a thief in charge of home security. They give us structural adjustment and debt forgiveness, when it is they that should be adjusting, they that should be seeking forgiveness for their usury.
But there is hope. The developing nations should not think that they are powerless in the face of their oppressors. Their best weapon now is the very scale of the debt crisis itself. A coordinated and simultaneous large scale default on international debt obligations could quite easily damage the Western monetary system, and the West knows it. There might be a war of course, or the threat of it, accompanied perhaps by lectures on financial morality from Washington, but would it matter when there is so little left to lose? In due course, every oppressed people comes to know that it is better to die with dignity than to live in slavery. Lenders everywhere should remember that lesson well.
Editorial, February 2002