Developing countries spent years repaying billions of dollars in loans, many of which had been accumulated during the Cold War under corrupt regimes. Years later, these debts became a serious impediment to poverty reduction and economic development in many poor countries. Governments began taking on new loans to repay old ones and many countries ended up spending more each year to service debt payments than they did on health and education combined. Wealthy countries and international financial institutions have taken action to relieve debt burdens in many of the most impoverished countries, but debt burdens remain an issue for two main reasons:
First, not all poor countries were able to benefit from the first two rounds of debt cancellation. Some countries, for example, were excluded from the original HIPC deal because they had done a relatively good job in managing their debts. Today, these countries still spend a significant portion of their resources servicing their debt. In 2010, for example, Lesotho spent $34.5 million paying its creditors. Kenya spent $398 million servicing its debt, equivalent to a quarter of the official development assistance it received the same year. In 2011, the World Bank and IMF announced that the HIPC scheme was coming to an end. Except for the ten countries still eligible to go through HIPC, there is now no international process in place for dealing with government debt crisis.
A second, emerging challenge is that a significant number of countries which benefited from the first rounds of debt cancellation are now accumulating new debts. The World Bank and IMF estimate that well over half of the countries that were included in HIPC and MDRI are now under high or moderate risk to reincur unsustainable debt levels. One reason for this is that many countries are facing shortfalls of promised development assistance. Additionally, an increasing percentage of the aid is being given as loans now instead of grants. Compounding these shortfalls of aid has been the economic stress on developing countries as a result of the financial crisis and growing costs for essential imports like fuel and fertilizers. More countries have been forced to take out new loans and often reach out to new donors such as China, who tend to offer loans with less favorable interest rates. In addition, the private sector is playing an increasing role as a lender to developing countries, but there is often very little information available to monitor such debts. Only half of low income countries report on privately-owed foreign debt, and among these, the average debt is over 15% of GDP. Combined, these trends suggest that the number of countries reincurring unsustainable debt levels will increase. Based on IMF and World Bank predictions, relative foreign debt payments for impoverished countries may increase by as much as one third over the next few years. Some impoverished countries, such as Ethiopia, Mozambique and Niger, could be spending as much of their government revenue on foreign debt payments in a few years as they were before debt relief.
Beginning in 1996, industrialized countries sought to cancel many poor countries’ debt through two vehicles: the Highly Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) Initiative and the Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative (MDRI). Combined, these two initiatives have cancelled $94.4 billion worth of debt, $78.4 billion of which was in sub-Saharan African countries. If all 39 countries that are eligible for these schemes complete them, the total debt relief is estimated at $113.1 billion. In exchange for this debt relief, qualifying countries agreed to channel their debt savings to poverty reduction activities. Partly as a result, poverty reducing spending by HIPC-countries increased by around 3% of GDP between 2001 and 2011. For example, many governments used debt savings to help abolish primary school fees. In Tanzania, primary school fees were abolished in 2002, following debt relief the previous year, and primary enrollment increased dramatically from 49% (1999) to 98% (2008). Mozambique used its debt service savings to vaccinate children against tetanus, whooping cough and diphtheria, as well as to install electricity in schools and to build new ones, while Cameroon used its debt savings to launch a national HIV/AIDS plan for education, testing and prevention, including of mother-to-child transmission.
To build on these successes, donors need to take three steps. Firstly, the success can be replicated in other countries. Donors should explore extending debt cancellation to certain other poor countries that spend a significant portion of domestic resources servicing debt, but were excluded from debt relief because their debt levels did not meet the HIPC threshold (as in Kenya and Lesotho).
Secondly, the successes can be preserved by delivering development financing increasingly in the form of grants rather than loans so that accessing finance in order to reach the Millennium Development goals is not tantamount to reaccumulating unsustainable debt. Loans for development should be given on highly concessional terms.
Thirdly, the international community should establish a sovereign debt workout mechanism. If despite all efforts some countries fall back into unbearable debt burdens, it is essential to avoid debt rescheduling dragging on for decades. A sovereign debt workout mechanism would provide an arbitration panel structure similar to the WTO, where cases of state insolvency could be worked out in a fair, transparent and orderly manner.
Following the terrible earthquake that struck the country in January 2010, ONE members took action, calling for the cancellation of Haiti's existing debt and demanding that new aid was provided in the form of grants. More
With the Government's aid commitments under increasing scrutiny as we approach the Budget, a new report reveals that millions of lives have been saved and people lifted out of extreme poverty as a result of the bold pledges agreed at the G8 summit in Gleneagles eight years ago.
ONE is calling on global creditors to immediately cancel Haiti's $1 billion debt and help give the earthquake-stricken country a fresh start by ensuring that new aid comes in the form of grants, not debt-incurring loans.
$94.4 billion of debt
has been cancelled in poor countries since 1996.
Kenya paid $398 million
to its creditors in 2010, an amount equivalent to a quarter of the development assistance it received.
98% of Tanzanian children
were enrolled in primary school in 2008, after the government used its savings from debt relief to eliminate school fees in 2001.