Africa's Debt Dilemma

The success that US President George W. Bush and his special envoy, former Secretary of State James Baker, had in getting Iraq's foreign debts canceled or rescheduled shows what can be done when a policy is backed by political will. The contrast with Africa's debts could hardly be starker. Just three years ago, Jubilee 2000 made news when civil society groups, rock stars, and a few finance ministers like Britain's Gordon Brown pushed for African debt cancellation. President Bush mostly succeeded in his crusade; Jubilee 2000 succeeded mostly in getting empty promises.

Of course, the two campaigns confronted different obstacles and had different bases of support. Baker's mission possessed the unlimited backing of a US faced with the gargantuan cost of reconstructing Iraq; Jubilee 2000 had only world opinion behind it. Lucrative reconstruction contracts in Iraq gave America leverage to coerce its allies into submission; Jubilee 2000 had no such weapon of persuasion.

Finally, Baker was appealing to America's traditional allies in Europe and the Middle East, who need American friendship in many areas. The campaign to forgive Africa's debt was, on the other hand, focused on the crushing debt load owed by African countries to the IMF and the World Bank, who only have money to worry about. Still, the Jubilee campaign's street protests began a healthy debate about the lending arrangements of the IMF/World Bank.

But the time has come to abandon the Jubilee movement's humanitarian approach and focus instead on the legal aspect. It is worth remembering that no sub-Saharan African country - with the exceptions of South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), then administered by white minority governments - could tap international capital markets at independence in the early 1960's. Domestic capital markets were non-existent. As a result, these countries were left with no choice but to subcontract their development to the IMF and World Bank.