During its annual meeting in December, The National Caucus of Black State Legislators (NCBSL) called on the Bush administration and the U.S. Congress to recognize the important role that debt cancellation plays in African development.
Quoting from the Nairobi-based All Africa Conference of Churches, Connecticut State Representative Reginald Beamon reminded colleagues that “Africa’s debt burden is a new form of slavery as vicious as the slave trade,” and that cancellation provides “operating capital” for developing nations in Africa. Beamon led the call for a NCBSL resolution that has since been dispatched to Washington, D.C.
The intellectual debate is over; debt cancellation works.
Last year, in response to international pressure and recognition that debt levels held by heavily indebted poor countries were unsustainable, the leaders of the world’s eight most powerful and wealthiest nations, known as the G-8, announced the Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative (MDRI). To implement the G-8 deal, draft agreements were made with the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and the African Development Bank for presentation to the boards and shareholders of each of the respective organizations.
Throughout last year these plans have been adopted and the individual organizations debts cancelled the debt of some 20 countries, 15 of which are in Africa. The results have been impressive:
· In Tanzania, debt cancellation allowed the nation to increase education spending and eliminate school fees for elementary school education as well as resources to help with importing vital food supplies for those affected by drought;
· In Ghana, the money saved is being used for basic infrastructure, including rural feeder roads, as well as increased expenditure on education and health care.
· In Burundi, elimination of school fees in 2005 allowed an additional 300,000 children to enroll.
· In Zambia, since March 31, 2006, free basic health care has been provided for all and a pledge to recruit 800 medical personnel and slightly over 4,000 teachers;
· In Cameroon, a pledge to recruit some 30 thousand new teachers by the year 2015 and to construct some one thousand health facilities within the next six years.
· In Nigeria, which negotiated a separate debt deal with an informal group of 19 creditor governments called the Paris Club, cancellation has freed up $1 billion annually; the government has announced that it will set aside part of those savings for youth development.
In addition, there has been a sea of change in the policy sphere. Twenty years ago debt campaigners were ignored; today, governments around the globe recognize the importance of cancellation. Cancellation is an acknowledged pre-condition to reaching the United Nations Millennium Development Goals to halve global poverty by 2015, and it is an accepted part of most countries’ development strategies.
The Chinese Government, noting that “It is all too clear that world peace and development cannot possibly be sustained if the north-south divide grows wider and developing nations grow poorer,” has recently cancelled debts for 31 African countries totaling $1.27 billion.
Campaigners are also enormously pleased by Norway’s recent decision to cancel $80 million of debt, without conditions, for five countries, including Egypt and Sierra Leone. Norway’s decision is the first time a donor country has acknowledged irresponsibility, noting that the primary purpose of the initial loans was to benefit the donor country.
The next challenge is how quickly can debt be cancelled for the remaining countries, 67 around the globe, 32 in Africa, and under what conditions?
According to a national poll conducted by the American Friends Service Committee, 80 percent of U.S. citizens indicate support for increased investment in international development, education, and addressing social needs. The most significant expression of public opinion, the November 2006 elections, indicate that Americans want a change in national priorities, a redirection of resources from war to human security. Debt cancellation, done without harmful conditions, is a necessary first step in that process.
When national policymakers return to Washington, D.C., they have an opportunity to demonstrate that they have also heard the message; cancel developing country debt.
Imani Countess is the National Coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee Africa Program, and Co-Chair of the Jubilee USA Network firstname.lastname@example.org.