African Debt Relief


     The United States and Great Britain have recently agreed on a much needed debt relief plan for many of Africa's heavily indebted countries.  The relief is tied to indications of progress within the candidate countries towards reform.  This is both wise and a much needed precondition.  However, without some additional measures to ensure that the relief is not squandered by donor democracies which exhibit only the outward appearance of democracy while both denying and repressing the power thereof, as well as a realization of the economic causative factors which have exacerbated the conditions of debt within these countries, such relief will be much like coins tossed in a fountain; full of hope yet making no more than a little splash. 


     Let's be blunt.  Africa is a mess. A large percentage of its population lives on less than a dollar a day.  It is the poster child for AIDS.  It is torn by domestic and international unrest.  It is the locus of repetitive genocide, cycles of famine and hunger, massive displaced populations, and brutal, self perpetuating regimes.  This is not to say that there are not areas for hopeful optimism; but in large measure, Africa remains the heart of darkness, with all of the connotations of that phrase.  It also remains, however, a continent rich in resources and of vast potential.  In fact, it is in large measure because of these resources and potential that others are still interested in its future, with China and the US vying for influence and the access which such influence promises.  To be doubly blunt, the recipients of African resource access have been plagued by a myopic form of self interest, disregarding the long term consequences of short sighted approaches to Africa's continental problems.


     In large measure, even Africa's democracies are not truly democratic.  This is not meant to minimize the real progress that has been made in many African countries nor the difficulties inherent in democratic reform.  The experiment in democracy in America still has its warts and wrinkles, attested to by the recent special on The News Hour concerning lynchings in the 20th century American south.  Democracy is always a work in progress, some steps being obviously more pressing, both here and abroad.  It is a fact, however, that the lion's share of African wealth generated through the extractive processes never benefits the majority of the African people due to government misappropriation and outright theft, often aided by the complicity of international banking systems and trans-national corporations. 


     If their internal problems were not enough, many heavily indebted countries have also been made to submit to structural reform measures formulated by the geniuses in the international financial institutions that have given us multiple southern hemispheric  actual or near defaults already. Of course, the IMF retort is that the countries did not fully embrace needed reform.  They did not fully privatize because they did not wish to throw all of their populations out on the streets.  They did not fully open their markets because they did not wish to sell off their entire patrimony or to fully cripple domestic industry.  They did not fully deregulate or fully embrace liberal economic policy because they, at least hopefully, realized that governments still have a role to play in ensuring the equitable distribution of goods and services and the hope for all to attain a good life for themselves.  They did, however, embrace these recommended best practices sufficiently to ensure the denouement of their own indigenous industries, sufficiently control their own, or formerly their own, national assets, or ensure their government's ability to counteract the abuses of the invisible hand of market driven forces whose bottom line is not justice or equitability but profit and return on investment. 


     If debt relief is to fulfill its promise, it must be coupled with a realization, as well as acceptance, of some of the real failures of the liberal economic policies foisted on HIDCs.  The lessons learned from our attempted fire side privatization of Iraqi industry, with the consequent flaming of the insurgent fires there, should be instructive.  The long term impacts realized within many additional LDCs should also inform future decisions.  For some reason, we seem to have equated democracy with liberal economic policy, almost as if one cannot exist without the other.  We have also turned a blind eye where proximate, pragmatic ends conflicted with idealistic values, forgetting the lesson that idealistic values are born in the very practical realization of the long term negative consequences of not choosing what is really good.                                                          


     The long term impacts are more debt relief, continued conflict and decreased stability, more refugees and IDPs, more trans-national disease migrations, and ever spiraling costs to limit the impacts of these events on others.  At some point we must accept both the impacts of our own myopic policies on our long term good, the need for collective action to address global issues, and the real long term value of international normative standards in both mitigating human suffering as well as helping us all to realize our collective potential.  If we buy into these standards, we must also correspondingly give up some of our own sovereign authority, where internationally agreed norms exist, to decide what is right.  If we can agree on these standards, however, we must also follow through on their collective enforcement, even if that means intervention in the sovereign affairs of others who transgress these norms and, because of that transgression, impact us all. 


     Africa needs debt relief.  They also need political reform.  Additional economic liberalization, deregulation, and privatization, however, are of dubious benefit, both to them as well as to our long term interests, although short term benefits might be realized.  Donor communities should require mechanisms to ensure the benefits of relief are realized by the populations of the beneficiary governments.  Regional collective security mechanisms should be increased, strengthened and supported.  The near term costs may be large, but they will be far outstripped by the long term costs of intervention or consequence management when the impacts of instability, gross poverty, disease, and inequity complete their translant.  Patriot Act provisions should be vigorously enforced, supported by publish who you pay provisions, and requiring strict accountability and responsibility for non-complicit transactions.  Mr. Blair's appeal for additional aid should be reconsidered in light of the current impacts of past neglect.  More should be spent on the mechanisms, organizations and means of conflict prevention rather than on those organized, trained and equipped to deal with the results of poor prevention mechanisms.  The perceived threats which we fear from those who would "cut in on our deal" should rather be viewed as potential partners in helping to realize the benefits to us all of a stable African continent that has the infrastructure, means and will to provide a good life for its citizens.  It is even possible that such collective action could not only increase our access as well as improve local conditions, but also foster improved relations with those currently viewed as resource competitors.  African debt relief is a needed first step in improving conditions on that continent.  It is, however, only one step among many which need to be taken.  Hopefully we will also have the vision to see the additional steps which should be taken, the understanding to accept their utility, and the courage to make the needed commitments to make them a reality.