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Africa’s Gathering Debt Storm

Without rapid and vastly increased external help to weather the COVID-19 storm and ease their debt-service burden, many African economies could collapse. This would directly affect the rich world in ways for which it is not prepared.

CAPE TOWN – The COVID-19 crisis is pushing Africa to the financial brink. African governments are under pressure to continue servicing their external loans, leaving them with few resources to confront a historic pandemic and its economic fallout. Without external support – specifically, a comprehensive repayment freeze – some African economies will buckle under their debt burden. The resulting domino effect could imperil the entire continent’s development and harm richer countries, too.

The international community’s response so far has been mixed. The most notable step so far – the G20’s Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI) for the world’s poorest countries – covers only official bilateral debt. But 61% of African DSSI countries’ debt-service payments this year will go to private creditors, bondholders, and multilateral lenders like the World Bank. And, despite the G20’s assurances, some countries joining the DSSI were subsequently downgraded by global ratings agencies.

The World Bank has played an unhelpful role here. Although its president, David Malpass, recently The">called for expanded debt relief and even raised the possibility of a write-off, he has also resisted calls for the Bank itself (a major lender to Africa) to freeze debt repayments. Instead, the US-dominated institution seems more interested in scoring political points by urging the China Development Bank to join the G20 initiative, even though doing so would really affect only one African country.

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