Sun, Jul 06, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Africa's odious debts

The war in Iraq might have succeeded in dismantling at least one weapon of mass destruction, the debt bomb

By James Boyce and Leonce Ndikumana


One side effect of the American/British occupation of Iraq is that it sparked public debate on a dark secret of international finance: the debts taken on by odious regimes.

As Iraq's new rulers debate what to do about the billions of dollars in foreign debts inherited from former president Saddam Hussein's regime, voices ranging from the charity Oxfam-International to US defense guru Richard Perle are calling for debt repudiation on the grounds that the debts Iraq now bears were contracted to sustain a corrupt, oppressive regime.Iraq is not the only country burdened by such debts. Across sub-Saharan Africa, many of the world's poorest people struggle with the crippling legacy of profligate lending to corrupt, oppressive rulers.

During his 32-year dictatorship, Congo's former president Joseph Mobutu accumulated a personal fortune estimated at US$4 billion, while his government ran up a US$12 billion foreign debt. More of the same in Angola, where last year an IMF investigation revealed that US$4 billion disappeared from Angola's treasury over the past five years. It so happens that the Angolan government borrowed a similar sum from private banks in this period, mortgaging future oil revenues as security.

Much of Africa's ill-gotten wealth is now stashed abroad. In a study of 30 sub-Saharan African countries, we estimate that total capital flight for the period from 1970 to 1996 amounted to US$187 billion. Adding imputed interest earnings, the stock of Africa's capital flight stood at US$274 billion -- a sum equivalent to 145 percent of the debts owed by those countries.

In other words, sub-Saharan Africa is a net creditor to the rest of the world: its external assets exceed its external debts. The difference is that the assets are private and the debts public.

Statistical analysis reveals that roughly 80 cents on every US$1 borrowed by African countries flowed back as capital flight in the same year. Foreign borrowing and capital flight were connected by a financial revolving door, as funds borrowed in the name of governments were captured by politically connected individuals and channeled overseas as their private wealth.

Moreover, every US$1 added to a country's total debt generated 3 to 4 US cents of extra capital flight per year in subsequent years, implying that capital flight was partly a response to the deteriorating economic environment associated with rising debt burdens.

In the last decade, sub-Saharan Africa recorded a "net transfer" (new borrowing minus debt service on past loans) of negative US$11 billion. That is, more money flowed out of Africa to creditors than returned as fresh lending. The countries of the region spend more on debt service than on health. Despite this haemorrhage, the debt burden grows ever larger.

But there is a remedy at hand. The doctrine of "odious debt" dates from the end of the 19th century, when the US government repudiated Cuba's external debt after seizing the island in the Spanish-American war. America's authorities argued that Cuba's debt had not been incurred for the benefit of the Cuban people, nor with their consent, and that foreign loans helped to finance their oppression. Similar reasoning can be applied today not only to Iraq, but to Africa as well.

Properly functioning financial markets require creditors to bear the consequences of imprudent lending. The notion that lenders should always be repaid, regardless of how and to whom they lend, is indefensible. The logic of sound banking tells us that current and future African governments should accept liability only for those portions of public debts that were incurred to finance bona fide domestic investment or public consumption. Invoking the doctrine of odious debt, they could selectively repudiate that portion of the debt for which no such uses can be demonstrated.

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