Is there anything on earth more comely than a G8 finance minister coated in international goodwill? Aren’t they big-hearted? Good Samaritans all, they give off a golden light.
Busy readers glancing at the headlines might well think that something close to a total writeoff of African debt has been achieved and a huge hunk of cash has been plunked down on the continent that will fill out and gloss the baggy grey skin of those big-eyed dying infants we so often see.
Debt relief, aid and dear old Bob Geldof with that winsome dragged-through-a-hedge-backward hairdo, it’s all memories of Live Aid and happy, shiny people doing good things.
I’d like to believe it myself, being parched for good news. Unfortunately, it’s a crock, part of an elaborate self-serving lie.
I first suspected that Tony Blair’s desperate effort to regain popularity after the Iraq debacle by healing “the scar that is Africa” would not work after seeing last week’s embarrassing White House press conference with Bushy. Mr. Blair told reporters that he sought $25-billion in new aid for Africa. Mr. Bush, whose good ol’ boy accent intensifies as his approval ratings fall, said he cared about Africa too (Raht, Condi? She smiled and nodded) and offered $674-million, less than three per cent of Mr. Blair’s figure. Mr. Blair’s body language, the look in his eyes, radiated hate.
We are now told that George W. Bush’s contribution will be made over 10 years and that many of the G8 will lift their cash from existing African aid funds.
But the problem is not, and has never really been, aid. Cash helps temporarily. What crushes Africa are the trade policies of the rich nations. Africa is asked to open its markets to the massively subsidized goods of the rich, thus destroying their own agriculture and attempts at export. “Trade is the root of the problem,” the Make Poverty History campaign has told the BBC. But trade is not mentioned.
I cannot rate corruption as Africa’s second-biggest problem, lacking the space to explain the ironies, given the corruption of U.S. corporations and the amusing fact that the G8 nations have refused to sign the UN convention against corruption. They’d rather pay the bribes. And the most corrupt nations are IMF pets.
No, the second thing killing Africa is debt. We know this. The IMF and the World Bank handed out massive loans, contingent on nations following often ludicrously inappropriate ideological capitalist rules that caused starvation, misery and utter failure in almost every endeavour.
One would expect no less.
But the numbers are fascinating. Readers with a mortgage may or may not possess a document I was advised to obtain when I first entered into a mortgage. An “amortization table” tells you your monthly payments for 25 or so years, showing how much of each payment is interest and how much is principal, revealing that your $12 contribution to your principal is dwarfed by your $1,500 to interest. This means that you’ll end up paying six times the value of your house because you were foolish enough to lose the genetic lottery and not have been born into the Weston family.
Yes, I’m aware that I already won the genetic lottery by being born in Canada and not in Rwanda, but one look at my amortization table and I began wheezing and hearing crashing noises in my head, as if my brain lobes were stock-car racing.
A bar graph of Africa’s debt load from 1970 to 2002 shows that Africa, including sub-Saharan Africa, has faithfully repaid its loans. Yet it still somehow owes rich countries (and their private lenders) the same amount it borrowed. Funny, that. No wonder Africa is gasping for breath. And there’s this terrible banging sound in its head that no one else can hear.
African nations signed a devil’s bargain with Western usurers. For the current “debt relief” comes with the same spikes with which “debt” pierced African flesh. Economist George Monbiot is the only one so far to have pointed this out. They come in paragraph 2 of the G8 statement. They are called “conditionalities,” a cute word for running nations into the ground. Mr. Monbiot sums it up: “commercialization, privatization and the liberalization of trade and capital flows,” i.e., a refurbished playground for Western corporations.
Debt meant a country like Uganda was told to impose user fees for basic health care and education. So health care for the poor simply vanished as did school, especially for little girls. When Uganda killed the fees, life improved dramatically for the poor, but, as Mr. Monbiot reports, the World Bank was furious.
My mortgage came with interest structured in such a crushing way that we lived like monks for years so we could escape before cataracts and macular degeneration prevented us from seeing the house the bank expected us to die paying for. And then when we paid off the mortgage early, the bank, with a gall that would embarrass Paul Wolfowitz (hardly), charged a penalty.
Debt is bad. But debt relief is worse somehow because Africans are supposed to thank us. The nations we have plundered for centuries deserved unconditional debt relief. Instead, they get “conditionalities,” even as we use computers and cellphones made with precious African metals that strangely have not made Africans rich.
IMF loans meant: “Take our money, give us everything and we’ll put you in a chokehold.” IMF “debt relief” means: “We’ll forget some of the interest, but we still keep you in a chokehold and this time we’ll smash you in the face and you’ll like it.”
Debt relief should come with only one thing, not conditionalities, but an apology. That will happen when hell freezes over and we reverse climate change — in other words, never.