WRITING OFF THE DEBTS OF POOR COUNTRIES
One has not failed to notice the self congratulatory triumphalism of Western governments, including the British, over their rather belated decision to write off the debts of a so-called group of twenty poor countries, many, probably including Sierra Leone, from Africa. 

There was Mr Gordon Brown, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer (the equivalent of the minister of finance) saying with all the confidence in the world, that they have decided to write these debts off but that during consultations with these governments they insisted, as their condition for discharge, that they use the money to develop their countries and build more schools, hospitals and roads, etc. 

When will these Western people learn the basic facts? So what were all the previous loans and aid monies given out for? And who were the people who administered - sorry, misappropriated - these funds? 

Brown was talking to the very people who have been the root cause of the misspending and gross misapplication of these resources. What has happened since, to make him believe that all new monies will now be invested for the benefit of the people of these countries and not for the pockets of their rulers? Have we just witnessed another mass conversion of our rulers on the way to Damascus? You would think that these are fresh people being given control over these vast new resources.

Come on, Mr Brown. You can't teach an old dog new tricks. 

Of course writing off our debts has been long overdue. Thanks, and congratulations,  to especially the pressure groups and campaigners here in Britain whose perseverance has won the day. One of the most ardent campaigners who led the pressure on the British Government but is sadly not around to see the happy result of his crusade was the late Roman Catholic prelate, His Eminence Cardinal Bail Hume. 

But so as the efforts of these worthy people are not in vain, dramatic changes need to be in place in order to make sure that the wastefulness of the past years of indebtedness are not repeated. 

Merely by sitting down and getting assurances from the very people who have fleeced their countries all these years will make no difference to their future conduct. They will end up amassing more debts in the name of their people with absolutely nothing to show for it except in the opulence of their lifestyles and the token white elephants that they sometimes put up. 

If the West really wants to help our countries, they must first realise and accept that these countries are ridden with political systems that are rotten to the core. Though the West's intention is honourable, releasing these amounts just like that will seem like pouring water on the back of a duck - it simply runs off to the ground and seeps away. 

Despite the real and undeniable need that we have for these resources, our economies do not have the infrastructure to absorb most of the money that comes in; the only people with the capacity to do so are not the poor for whom they are intended, but their political masters, who are in the main corrupt. Hence capacity building in finance management in these countries is a key to the effective use of resources, and thus to their stability.

It was interesting to read reports of Prime Minister Tony Blair's expressed exasperation and frustration with these leaders at the recent Commonwealth summit in South Africa. The British Observer Newspaper reported that he delivered "a stern lecture...about how widespread corruption is hindering the organisation's work"

A review is now to be set up following "a devastating report commissioned by [Blair], who found that endemic corruption in Commonwealth countries and the organisation's sloppy management were hindering its work". This report also alluded to the fact that investors were exasperated by the level of corruption in these countries and that monies were being used for purposes for which they were not intended.

So write off the debts by all means! But the emphasis should be on:

  • introducing fundamental changes in the political systems;
  • creating a culture of democratic accountability within recipient countries; 
  • educating their masses to know that monies lent for development are meant for them, not for members of the government to let it trickle down to them while keeping the rest for themselves; and 
  • Capacity building in the areas of financial management and planning.
When one looks at the nature of the debts that were incurred by some countries, taking Sierra Leone as one an example, one can readily see that the so-called borrowed money was lent to us in order to facilitate the further exploitation of the country's resources to satisfy the thrift and profit motive of some of the donor countries.

In fact, looking at it objectively, most of the written-off debt has already been paid by us. Why? Because most of the money has eventually found its way back into the banks of many western countries by now, sometimes in the guise of  the personal bank accounts of some of our rulers. So in the end,  the  West is doing us no big favours really ...when you think about it! 

See here for my article on the vicious cycle of debt and resisting the lure of debts.

24/12/99