Our sovereign debt crisis Featured
In 2009, the Zambian-born economist Dambisa Moyo published the instant bestseller Dead Aid. (Dambisa Moyo, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2009)). Moyo’s main argument in the book was that there was little to show for the hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign aid that had been given ĺto the African continent since 1970. Rather than spurring development, she said, aid had financed grand-scale corruption and civil wars, which in turn thwarted economic growth on the continent. Moyo’s case against aid was not a new one. Her book’s arguments were inspired by the Hungarian-born British conservative economist Peter Bauer, in whose memory Moyo dedicated her book. Bauer made a career singling out foreign aid – not colonialism or neocolonialism – as the chief architect of Africa’s underdevelopment.(Peter Bauer, ‘The Case Against Foreign Aid, Intereconomics’, Verlag Weltarchiv 8, no. 5 (1973) 154–157).
What was new about Dead Aid was Moyo’s prescription? In a chapter titled ‘A Capital Solution’, Moyo called for the substitution of aid with private market debt. That is, she called on Western countries to significantly reduce their aid to Africa and at the same time called on African governments to make up for the shortfall by borrowing from private creditors and bondholders such as hedge funds, banks, and so on. For Moyo, this was an elegant solution to the problem of corruption, which had historically bedevilled the foreign aid industrial complex. Money sourced from private debt markets was unlikely to fuel corruption in Africa because, Moyo argued, private creditors were sophisticated enough to not invest in countries likely to engage in corruption. After all, corruption acted as a drag on economic growth, which in turn threatened the prospects of debt repayment. On the other hand, to access much-needed private credit, African governments would need to demonstrate to private creditors that they were committed to fighting corruption and to investing the proceeds in growth-enhancing activities. Moyo’s policy solution was, therefore, a supposed win-win for all concerned.
Moyo’s ‘capital solution’ provided the intellectual cover for the financialisation of capital flows to Africa through the issuance of so-called Eurobonds (i.e., the issuance of bonds in US dollars and Euros), whose meteoric rise would engulf the continent in a new debt crisis by 2020. Ghana’s first issuance of a Eurobond in 2007 was a turning point for the continent. The country’s debut bond of $750 million was issued to much fanfare and was highly sought after by financial investors in New York and London. (Reuters, ‘Huge Demand for Ghana’s Debut Eurobond’, Ghana Web, 27 September 2007, https://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/business/artikel.php?ID=131428.). In a quest to satisfy investors’ appetites, Ghana followed up by issuing two additional Eurobonds totalling $2 billion in 2013 and 2014. Other countries in Africa soon followed suit. (Vivian Kai Mensah, ‘Ghana Issues Third Eurobond’, 11 September 2014, Citi 97.3 FM, https://citifmonline.com/2014/09/ghana-issues-third-eurobond/#sthash.Ry1XkD86.dpbs.).
In 2011, Zambia obtained its first sovereign credit rating (a credit score of sorts) from the ratings agency Fitch. Shortly thereafter, the country issued two Eurobonds in quick succession in 2012 and 2014, a scenario that increased Zambia’s external debt by an incredible 300% in three years. (Grieve Chelwa, ‘It’s Time to Treat Commodity-Backed Loans to African Countries the Same Way We Treat Equity’, Quartz, 2 June, 2015, https://qz.com/africa/417167/its-time-to-treat-commodity-backed-loans-to-african-countries-the-same-way-we-treat-equity; Grieve Chelwa, ‘The “Truth” about Zambia’s Debt’, Grieve Chelwa (blog), 15 October 2020, http://gchelwa.blogspot.com/2020/10/the-truth-about-zambias-debt.html.). Kenya likewise jumped on the bandwagon, issuing three Eurobonds between 2014 and 2019 that totalled around $5.5 billion.(Paul Wafula, ‘Kenya: Eurobond Dossier Reveals Kenya’s Deep Economic Ties to China, IMF’, AllAfrica, 17 June 2021, https://allafrica.com/stories/202106170380.html.).
Eurobond issuance on the continent grew at an incredible pace in the second decade of the twenty-first century: by 2020, twenty-one African countries had issued Eurobonds (several, in many cases). According to the World Bank’s International Debt Statistics handbook, the stock of Eurobond debt for sub-Saharan Africa grew from about $32 billon in 2010 to $135 billon in 2020, a 322% rate of increase. (World Bank, International Debt Statistics 2022 (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2022), https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/36289/9781464818004.pdf?sequence=4&isAllowed=y)
In other words, the stock of Eurobond debt had more than tripled in just ten years.
The rate of increase in the stock of Eurobond debt between 2010 and 2020 far outstripped other sources of foreign currency debt in Africa. For example, multilateral debt from the World Bank, IMF, African Development Bank, and other institutions increased by about 144% over the same period, a rate that is less than half that of the increase in Eurobond debt. Similarly, bilateral debt from governments in countries such as China, France, the US, and the UK to governments in Africa also increased at a rate of 145%, which was also less than half the rate of increase in Eurobond debt. (World Bank, International Debt Statistics 2022 (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2022), https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/36289/9781464818004.pdf?sequence=4isAllowed=y.).
This last point on bilateral debt is worth highlighting given the argument on ‘debt trap diplomacy’ that has become commonplace with respect to debt from China. The argument alleges that China is using debt to trap Africa in a perpetual cycle of indebtedness and servitude. However, the facts present a different picture. Though World Bank’s International Debt Statistics handbook does not provide a country-by-country breakdown of bilateral debt to Africa that would allow us to isolate the Chinese component, it shows that by 2020 Africa’s total external debt owed to bilateral creditors (i.e., countries) stood at $115 billion, compared Eurobond debt of $135 billion. Further, the figure for bilateral debt provided by the World Bank is for all bilateral creditors, implying that Eurobond debt outstripped all debt from bilateral creditors, which includes China. A careful analysis from Debt Justice shows that African debt to China was $83 billion in 2020, a number smaller than the $135 billon owed to private bondholders. (The Growing Debt Crisis in Lower Income Countries and Cuts in Public Spending’, Debt Justice, July 2022, https://debtjustice.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/Who-African-governments-debt-is-owed-to_Media-Briefing_07.22.pdf, 2.). Figures on Chinese loans and Africa’s debt produced by researchers working at the China Africa Research Initiative (CARI) at Johns Hopkins University in the United States are often cited in support of the debt trap diplomacy argument (despite their own researchers having published articles debunking the Chinese debt trap narrative). (Deborah Brautigam and Meg Rithmire, ‘The Chinese “Debt Trap” Is a Myth’, The Atlantic, 6 February 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2021/02/china-debt-trap-diplomacy/617953/.). However, they are not very useful in this particular case because, according to CARI itself, its database ‘does not track [debt] disbursements and repayments’.(‘Loan Data’, China Africa Research Initiative, Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, accessed 13 February 2023, http://www.sais-cari.org/data.). I36 Edwin Mutai, ‘Ouko Says Eurobond Billions Still a Mystery’, Business Daily Africa, 23 January 2018, https://www.businessdailyafrica.com/bd/economy/ouko-says-eurobond-billions-still-a-mystery–2186608; Steven Mvula and Frank Ching’ambu, ‘Where Did the Eurobond Given to ZR Go?’, Frontlines Zambia, 4 August 2022, https://frontlineszambia.com/archives/26311).
In other words, CARI only reports on newspaper announcements of loan contraction but does not track to see if the contracted loan left China and, if it did, if the recipient government in Africa subsequently paid it off or paid off portions of it. Therefore, CARI figures can be misrepresented in ways that vastly exaggerate the true stock of Chinese debt to Africa.
This goes to show that the current sovereign debt crisis currently engulfing the African continent is largely the creation of private creditors via the Eurobond craze that possessed and took hold of the continent in the second decade of the twenty-first century, helped along by the intellectual justifications of Dambisa Moyo and others. Eurobonds did not fix the problem of corruption that was said to be endemic with foreign aid, as Moyo argued they would. For example, hundreds of millions of dollars of Kenya’s first Eurobond issuance are said to have gone ‘missing’. In Zambia, questions have been raised about where the Eurobond money went.(Edwin Mutai, ‘Ouko Says Eurobond Billions Still a Mystery’, Business Daily Africa, 23 January 2018, https://www.businessdailyafrica.com/bd/economy/ouko-says-eurobond-billions-still-a-mystery–2186608; Steven Mvula and Frank Ching’ambu, ‘Where Did the Eurobond Given to ZR Go?’, Frontlines Zambia, 4 August 2022, https://frontlineszambia.com/archives/26311.).
In Mozambique, loans and bonds were illegally withdrawn and misused by state-owned enterprises (known as the Tuna Bond Scandal). As these cases illustrate, Western private bankers and creditors have facilitated this type of theft (‘Mozambique and the “Tuna Bond” Scandal’, Spotlight on Corruption, 9 February 2021, ; Lily Kuo, ‘Kenya’s Ex-PM Accuses US Banks of Helping the Government Steal $1 Billion from the Country’s First Eurobond’, Quartz, 4 January 2016, https://qz.com/africa/594324/kenyas-ex-pm-accuses-us-banks-of-helping-the-government-steal-1-billion-from-the-countrys-first-eurobond.).
Finally, analysing the sources of debt in Africa casts doubts on current multilateral initiatives aimed at resolving Africa’s sovereign debt crisis. One example is the Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI), launched by the G20 in May 2020, soon after the COVID-19 pandemic began to send shockwaves across the globe, to encourage bilateral and multilateral creditors to suspend interest payments on debt owed by poorer nations, including those in Africa, for a year. The DSSI was hardly successful, as many creditors – with the exception of a few, such as China – refused to suspend interest payments.(Alicia García-Herrero, Suman Bery, and Pauline Weil, ‘How Is the G20 Tackling Debt Problems of the Poorest Countries?’, Bruegel (blog), 25 February 2021,https://www.bruegel.org/blog-post/how-g20-tackling-debt-problems-poorest-countries; ‘China Says Has Given $2.1 Billion of Debt Relief to Poor Countries’, Reuters, 20 November 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-debt-g20-idUSKBN28009A.).
In addition, many analysts remarked that the DSSI was not fit for purpose, since it only applied to official debt (multilateral and bilateral), while the sovereign debt crisis was largely fuelled by a private bond crisis as shown above.
As the DSSI expired in June 2021 and the sovereign debt crisis got worse, the G20 launched the Common Framework for Debt Treatments, which would become the guiding mechanism for debt restructuring after the initial years of the pandemic. (‘The Common Framework for Debt Treatment beyond the DSSI’, Ministry of Economy and Finance of the Italian Government, accessed 13 February 2023, https://www.mef.gov.it/en/G20-Italy/common-framework.html). Unfortunately, it is bedevilled by many of the same problems that afflicted the DSSI. First, the Common Framework only has mechanisms for resolving official credit. But, as the above analysis shows, a substantial portion (and by far the largest single source) of Africa’s sovereign debt is owed to private bondholders and creditors. Their absence largely confines debt restructuring discussions to the theoretical sphere, with little practical value. Second, the Common Framework lays the ground for an official creditor committee, which in the case of Zambia is co-chaired by France and China. France is seen to represent the old Paris Club of creditor countries, which together make up a sizeable portion of the official credit given to Zambia. China is a co-chair given its emergence as an important source of credit to Africa, and Zambia in particular. However, the structure and governance of Zambia’s creditor committee with the two co-chairs has opened the country to geopolitical manoeuvrings and, in the process, largely paralysed the prospects for genuine debt restructuring anytime soon.
President of the Socialist Party