I am not an economist and have often steered clear of the subject for fear of exposing my ignorance, so will often look and simply smile when confronted with a mountain of facts and figures that are meant to make a strong economic argument one way or the other. I usually try to get the flow of the argument and react accordingly, with the measure of politeness that befits an African. If the truth be told though, I do have a tough time extending any measure of trust to economists. Their constan...read more
I am not an economist and have often steered clear of the subject for fear of exposing my ignorance, so will often look and simply smile when confronted with a mountain of facts and figures that are meant to make a strong economic argument one way or the other. I usually try to get the flow of the argument and react accordingly, with the measure of politeness that befits an African. If the truth be told though, I do have a tough time extending any measure of trust to economists. Their constant speculation around cause and effect and the vulnerability of economies to all manner of stimuli invariably leaves many ordinary people like me worried about how much in the way of decisions should really be left to economists. The sad fact though, is that most vital decisions globally have been left to economists and our task now, is to persuade them that we have reached the ‘era’ for total debt cancellation/write-off, if the sustainability of the planet is to be assured. Or would anyone argue with the need to achieve sustainability? I know many in the global north will worry about having to reduce their consumption, but would this not be better than ‘pre-maturely’ terminating your existence – or that of your children?
Why do I call this the ‘era’ for total debt cancellation?
From where I sit I can think of five distinct, descriptive words or phrases that describe particular experiences of citizens in relation to their lives over the past five decades. While I do not want to equate each ‘era’ to a decade there is a prevalent thought that to me appears to have dominated at each of these periods. The first, for me, was the era of independence during the late fifties and sixties and the promise of prosperity. In each newly independent country, the basic promise of politicians was that of prosperity, so long as everyone was prepared to do their share for development.
Then came the economic turbulence of the seventies which was marked by such factors as the oil shock resulting from the emergence of the oil cartel and the attendant instability it caused to the global economy. Hot on the heels of this experience by developing countries were the prescriptions of the International Financial Institutions – structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) which offered support to countries that were willing to go this route. Political leaders at this point spoke of the need for each citizen to make sacrifices now, for a better life in the future. So the prosperity promise was deferred for a while, as attempts were made to re-structure most economies. For most citizens, SAPs became the reason for their inability to afford their children a decent education, health care and basic services. The hope all along was that this would not be for too long. (I cannot resist observing here, that Africans have been suckers for promises like these – accept a little suffering now for a better life later)
References have been made to the eighties as a lost decade for Africa. Commodity prices for most products coming out of Africa were in steady decline and imported goods were, in contrast, getting increasingly expensive. Aside of the mainly resource based conflicts breaking out in most regions on the continent, it was becoming clear that the ‘one-size-fits-all’ prescription of the IFI’s was not working. Yet, countries were continuing to draw on the loans of the IFIs for lack of alternatives. The notion of helplessness and hopelessness may well have been the thought on the minds of many ‘Africa watchers’ at the time, even though few dared articulate it in these terms. It was not until after 2000 that a global publication suggested that Africa was a hopeless continent. But we all know that it is actually not so. It is simply a continent in shackles.
Rather than get easier as the politicians had promised when they embraced SAPs, the situation got increasingly harder in the nineties. Conditionalities got even stricter and analysts spoke of the total indebtedness of citizens in most countries as being in orders that would keep countries enslaved by debt well into the new millennium. It now became clear that generations were taking loans that their children and grand children would have to pay. The question of the sustainability for this kind of arrangement became more urgent than had been imagined previously and soon enough, the notion of atonement (drawn from our faith based colleagues) picked up a new meaning. Why should anyone pay the debt of another who lived before them particularly when the financing did not achieve the intended results? At the time of the Jubilee movement in the late nineties, the feeling was clearly that time had come for the cleaning of the slate and establishment of the basis for a fresh start. I could not help but identify with the calls at the time of the jubilee campaign that ‘we cannot pay, we should not pay, will not pay!’
I dare suggest that the era we are now in is characterized mostly by fears around terrorism. Those who felt helpless and hopeless have had their backs against the wall for a long time. Perhaps the terrorism is a reaction to the feeling of helplessness. There have to be ways to affirm your humanity. If these are not immediately visible, the human mind is richly endowed and will undoubtedly generate some ideas. But beyond this, we have to come to terms with the reality that we also owe the future generations of this planet a future that is sustainable. For me, nothing could speak more eloquently to the need to write off the debts of all indebted countries, than the sense of responsibility that we should be feeling for the damage that has been done already. It is time to right the wrongs that have been committed over and over again. It is finally time to write off all the debts and put the past to valuable experience during which important lessons have been learned. Let this act be one that will kindle a fresh enthusiasm for life and an appreciation of humanity and the fact that our destinies are in the end, intertwined. The write-off could well create the miracle that we need, to change the face of the planet, for the better. Are our political leaders thinking about this, or are we going to get more empty promises? The era for writing off the debts is finally upon us. Now we wait to hear the verdict of those who hold the power to do this.
If we can anticipate the write-off for even a short moment, I would like to think that civil society is ready and willing to think creatively about how to tap from the dividends arising from this action. It will be time to work again, with a spirit akin to that of the independence era. The possibilities are simply mind boggling – but first, the debt has to be written off!
* Ezra Limiri Mbogori is director of MWENGO, a network of African civil society organisations.
* Please send comments to