Yoke of international debt’ holding back Africa

Published September 1, 1999

The voices were urgent and angry, calling for the forgiveness of international debts owed by African nations to give them a “fresh start,” and also for a new economic order based on mutuality rather than exploitation.

An intense three-day consultation dealing with trade, aid, and debt drew a wide variety of people committed to economic justice for Africa, limited not just to experts but including students, former missionaries, government officials and church leaders.

Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town Njongonkulu Ndungane gave the keynote address for the consultation this summer in a suburb of Washington, D.C. Increasingly recognized as a leading spokesman for economic justice for his continent, the archbishop was blunt in calling for the “cancellation of unpayable debts as a first significant step towards a new economic beginning for the developing world, in particular Africa,” providing “a springboard to new hope, to a new dispensation of economic justice.”

Archbishop Ndungane traced the debt crisis, beginning with the liberation movements of the 1960s when leaders “grasped at economic lifelines thrown out by developed countries,” not aware that “they were being caught up in the net of foreign debt that would drag them further into a sea of poverty.”

As a result, he said, “millions of people in developing countries now live in abject poverty while a massive transfer of wealth takes place, from the people of the south to the industrialized nations of the north.” It is now estimated that Africa owes over $227 billion to creditors, about $400 for every man, woman and child on the continent, by some estimates.

In many instances, he noted, the debt was incurred by oppressive governments. In South Africa, for example, the apartheid regime racked up a debt of about $62 billion, debts which “should be declared odious and written off.”

“Poor countries are obliged by the International Monetary Fund and other representatives of rich creditor nations to prioritize debt payments and to do this by diverting funds from health, clean water, sanitation and human development,” the archbishop said. His call for a mediation council that would “establish legal principles and standards to govern international lending and borrowing,” was endorsed by last summer’s Lambeth Conference.

While the gap widens between the rich and the poor nations, “Planet Earth rent asunder by such division and injustice is heading for shipwreck.” He added that “the single greatest scandal of our age” is the “massive transfer of resources from poorer countries to the wealthy, whether through debt repayments or the inequalities of global trade.”

Standing on the threshold of a new millennium, Africans must pledge themselves to work for cancellation of unpayable debts, especially those stemming from militarist regimes, which “would give Africa an opportunity for a fresh start,” he said. And then Africa must move to “ensure that funds released from debt are channeled towards economic projects” and develop strategies for sustainable development.

Archbishop Ndungane repeated his urgent call for creation of an Economic Union of African States to co-ordinate economic development and assure that Africa would never again be marginalized or exploited. “It is time to move forward and to share the healthy, invigorating air of Africa with a world that has grown fatigued with old values,” he concluded. “Africa stands at a time where it can and must play a pivotal role in influencing the next millennium. And for that it must be freed from the last shackles of oppression that are holding it back-the yoke of international debt.”

A second voice from Africa, a theologian and economist from Tanzania, was just as blunt. Rev. Fidon Mwombeki denounced the World Bank and IMF as “unfriendly agents of imperialism.”


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