on debt relief
This evening in Trafalgar Square Nelson Mandela will once again not only represent his country but also that great moral courage rightly applauded by the admiring crowds in London and around the world.
I visited him recently in his home in Johannesburg. I had come to show him a report that proves what Drop the Debt, the continuation of the hugely successful Jubilee 2000 campaign, has been saying for a long time. The World Bank and the IMF can afford to cancel 100 per cent of the debts owed by the poorest countries, just as the Group of Seven (G7) richest nations already have done.
The sombre reality of a continent he has done so much to change and lead by example preoccupied and troubled him. He talked of his profound sorrow at the Aids pandemic gripping the continent and under which 20 per cent of the people of his own country suffer. He spoke, without bitterness but with frustration, about the clear linkage between Africa's debt problem and the continent's inability to deal effectively with the massive destruction caused by this terrible disease.
He told me how Zambia loses two thirds of its trainee teachers to HIV each year. How the result has brought to a shattering halt the tiny education system in that country. How Zambia pays more in debt repayments to us than on its entire healthcare budget. How ridiculous it is that Zambia, having entered the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative, which is supposed to end the debt crisis, will end up paying more in debt than they did prior to entering the initiative, as a result of the complex, arbitrary and ineffective series of financial hurdles the World Bank and IMF have imposed on these countries.
And how on average there has been only a pathetic 27 per cent reduction in the debt payments that are crushing and smothering those countries which have so far qualified for debt relief.
His head turned down, and that familiar voice began to shake as he spoke of the onerous debt burden breaking the backs of the increasingly tired and defeated peoples of this beautiful, intoxicating continent.
This is a man whose imprisonment mirrored that of his country, whose freedom was his country's freedom. Who was unbowed, unbroken and, in his most staggering defeat of his tormentors, was not embittered. Now he sat silent, for a moment beyond words at the monstrous enormity of what he had outlined in this tragic tour d'horizon .
The independent study I was showing Nelson Mandela, on the World Bank and International Monetary Fund was by Chantrey Vellacot, a leading global accountancy firm. I also told him that I had heard of a report circulating within the World Bank that the HIPC initiative is severely flawed and not capable of delivering what it set out to do - a lasting exit from the debt crisis for the poorest countries. After numerous rewrites this report was finally made public last week, and it proves that far deeper debt cancellation is required.
When I left Mandela he was armed with the findings of the independent report and arguing that now, before infrastructure utterly collapses and instability sets in, we must persuade and force the global institutions to relent and free the people of Africa from their unjust and unjustifiable yoke.
Two days later, South African President Thabo Mbeki talked to me of the upcoming conference on Aids in Africa. This was the time for increased pressure, he said, echoing his predecessor. He showed me the Millennium Action Plan, drawn up by him and other African leaders, which they would be discussing at the next Organisation for African Unity meeting, and which they will be taking in its final form to the G7 summit in Genoa in July. In broad, bold and blunt language, these leaders demand deeper debt cancellation.
These are not extremists. South Africa is a relatively rich country, able to handle its own debt burden - at least prior to the Aids crisis. Mbeki and Mandela are speaking for their continent and less fortunate neighbouring countries, which desperately need more debt relief.
This whole debt crisis has become a sickening joke. Everyone - the politicos, the bankers, the bureaucrats - know these people can never pay back this money. Nor do we need their cash. That argument has been won already - else why the 100 per cent relief from the G7? If the argument pertains to the richest nations, why not their agents, the IMF and World Bank, which we own as taxpayers in the richest nations?
Urgent and decisive action is required now as the impact of Aids is turning a desperate situation into an even more critical one. Gordon Brown says he is alarmed about the ongoing debt crisis, and he is right to be. Especially in light of the Aids crisis the debt initiative he has done so much to lead from inside the political mainstream is faltering. Even by its own standards it is failing. By the standards set by Drop the Debt, it is woefully inadequate.
Gordon Brown and the finance Ministers of other rich nations who gathered this weekend in Washington must follow through on their own commitment. They must direct the World Bank and the IMF to do as the richest nations have done and give 100 per cent debt relief. One day this will happen. And when it does, the only pertinent question will be, why not before? Did you really require those extra 5,000 people to die each day in Africa of Aids before you see the logic that appears so obvious to everyone else? Was it truly necessary to cripple the health, education and agricultural sectors, removing hope for the weakest and the poorest? What new whip do you wish to have with which to beat them?
Originally published in The Oberver Sunday April 29, 2001