On the face of it, the G8 debt deal is a scam. The money that qualifying countries save on debt repayments is almost entirely balanced by a corresponding cut in the aid that they receive from the World Bank.
The G8’s debt deal seems to work like this: the financial flows out of the country represented by debt service payments are cut, and at the same time there is a cut in the financial flows into the country represented by World Bank development aid. Result: countries find themselves in pretty much (not quite, but pretty much) the same situation they were in in the first place. They are paying less debt service and receiving less aid.
I would love to hear from people who think I’ve got this wrong – particularly if you work at the Bank and worked on the deal. As, if it’s not wrong, the G8 Debt Deal (the “Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative” or MDRI) is a near-total scam.
Not a total scam, though, for at least three reasons. For one thing, the IMF (International Monetary Fund) has cancelled its share of the debts of (pretty much) those nineteen countries. This happened in January, and doesn’t seem to have the same caveats as the World Bank proposal. But the IMF’s debt only amounted about 10% of the debt cancellation package agreed by (actually: prior to) the G8 in Gleneagles.
Second, the World Bank is generally upping its aid to the countries that are supported by the IDA (International Development Association), so even after their aid is cut to offset the debt cancellation, they will be in a better situation than before. Only not much better. According to a report from EURODAD (based on report from Debt Relief International here) the net benefit of the World Bank’s part of the debt deal ranges between $53 million a year to $1 million a year (mean benefit about $13 million), with the money being awarded according to what the World Bank thinks of national social and economic policy. Big winners are Ethiopia ($53m), Tanzania ($39m) and Uganda ($27m); little winners are Guyana ($1m), Bolivia ($4m), Niger ($5m). These are the figures which – as far as I can tell – represent the true value of the G8 Debt Deal.
Third, because the debt cancellation, even if offset by a cut in development aid, might leave the governments of the countries in question in a better position to respect their own internal democratic processes in setting economic and development policy. Last week Susan George came to Edinburgh (where I’m writing this) and spoke at the Scottish Parliament. Debt, she says, is power: the creditors have great influence over economic policy in the developing countries. For someone who takes this view (as I do), the G8 debt cancellation ought to be welcome since it might make a political difference even if the financial difference is small. But in the present case, the debt cancellation is only available to countries that have already satisfied the IMF that they will adopt and pursue strong programmes of adjustment and reform – to countries, it seems, that have already had the power exercised over them.
The World Bank debt deal has had a lot of publicity: Reuters/ABC tells us, for example, that $2.7 billion of cancellation has been granted to Zambia. Wonderful! And what’s the overall benefit to them this year? errr… $7 million (according to EURODAD).
I am very cynical about cynicism: it can be very superficially attractive (think only of Han Solo), and it’s a great way to make oneself look more clever than one actually is: but generally speaking it’s a rocky road. This isn’t meant to be cynical; it’s mean to be sceptical. If anyone thinks I am missing something, if there’s a substantial reason why this debt deal really is to be welcomed, I’d like to hear it.
Ben at Jubilee Scotland