What Does Africa Owe?

As President Bush embarks on his journey to Africa, he is looking to secure his legacy in part through his administration’s development initiatives on the continent. One of those initiatives is the administration’s support for expanded debt relief for the continent.

A closer look at this administration’s record on debt should begin with the question often posed by Africa-based civil society groups: who owes whom?

Canceling Debt

Take the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The United States, the World Bank and IMF, and other creditors lent former President Mobutu Sese Seko billions of dollars in the 1970s and 1980s, knowing full well that the funds would not benefit the people. This was a price they were willing to pay in the context of the Cold War to win the country’s allegiance to the West. But this clearly odious and illegitimate debt remains on the books today – over $9 billion worth in fact, and the people of the DRC are still paying for the sins of a leader they didn’t want.

The Bush administration has supported debt cancellation in Africa. Does Africa owe President Bush a debt of gratitude? In 2005, the Bush administration, together with the UK, took strong leadership at the G-8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland and agreed to provide the possibility of 100% debt stock cancellation of eligible debts to eligible countries. This was important because up until this point, only debt relief – reduction of payments – rather than outright cancellation, was possible.

The initiative championed by the Bush administration has since become known as the Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative (MDRI). Under this program, 23 countries have received 100% cancellation of eligible debts, 19 of them in Africa. Another 20 countries are potentially eligible for the program but have not yet seen their debts cancelled. When previous rounds of debt cancellation are added in, eligible nations are saving about $2 billion in debt payments each year.

The money saved from debt relief has been put to good use. Of the five countries President Bush will visit on his trip, four – Benin, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Ghana – have received debt cancellation under the MDRI. In Tanzania, debt relief led to a 50% increase in primary school enrollment. In Ghana, freed-up funds supported the rehabilitation of essential major highways and feeder roads in the main agricultural areas, and to support education and health initiatives. In Benin, relief bolstered investment in health and education and funded small-holder projects in agriculture.

The other country President Bush will visit on his trip – Liberia – just recently moved toward eligibility for the official IMF/World Bank debt relief program with the strong support of the administration. But Liberia has not yet seen its more than $3.5 billion debt – much of it run up by the human-rights-abusing regimes of Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor – cancelled outright.

What’s Still Missing

The Bush Administration has clearly provided leadership on debt relief that has benefited a number of African countries. But President Bush could do even more. He could return from Africa – inspired by seeing firsthand the impact of relief to date – and address the unfinished agenda on debt, in turn cementing his legacy in this area.

He should support the expansion of debt cancellation to all countries that need it to reach global poverty-reducing goals. This would include countries devastated by HIV/AIDS – such as Lesotho – that have not been included in agreements for debt cancellation to date.

Second, Bush should put an end to the unconscionable practices of “vulture funds.” Vulture funds are private creditors that buy up distressed developing country debt on the secondary markets, then refuse to join other creditors in the debt relief process and instead sue poor country governments for a big mark-up. Last year, Zambia had to pay $15 million to Donegal International, a vulture fund that originally paid $3 million for the debt. The president should support changes to U.S. law that would make profiteering by vulture funds illegal. While that work is underway, he could immediately reach out to non-Paris Club creditors in the U.S. sphere of influence and urge them to sign onto a new Paris Club agreement that commits creditors not to sell claims on the secondary market.

Another problem facing Africa now is a rapid re-accumulation of debts, including massive new lending from China. The administration’s plan to address this problem has focused on an IMF/World Bank framework that punishes debtors by hardening the terms of soft loans they get from the World Bank if they borrow too much. But this approach is likely to only worsen the problem and punishes poor countries without addressing creditor co-responsibility for the problem. Only a strong, binding international system for responsible lending and sovereign debt restructuring, which holds creditors and debtors responsible, can ensure debt sustainability in the future.

Finally, to answer the question of who owes whom, the United States and international financial institutions including the IMF and World Bank should audit past lending in Africa. Such an audit should look at which debts are odious, onerous, or illegal. Having this information will help us learn lessons from the past and avoid the same mistakes in the future.

To enhance his legacy in this area, President Bush could announce his support for the bi-partisan Jubilee Act for Responsible Lending (S. 2166 / H. 2634). This bill, currently pending in Congress, addresses many of the elements of the unfinished agenda on debt.

Neil Watkins is National Coordinator of Jubilee USA Network, an alliance of religious organizations, development agencies, and human rights groups working for debt cancellation and responsible lending for impoverished nations