Podium: A new deal for the world's poor

From a talk by the Christian Aid adviser to Third World debt campaigners at the G8 summit in Cologne, Germany

TWO THINGS are gradually emerging from the Cologne summit. The first is that the big headline numbers for new debt write-offs are not what they seem. Second is the oh-so-quiet and insidious reinventing of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as unchallenged judge and jury over the economic development prospects of the world's poorest countries - a move viewed with deep scepticism by overseas development agencies such as Christian Aid, and with very nervous glances from the World Bank.

Few would question the political achievement of forcing so many powerful people to discuss and decide the new debt package, but how much relief has actually been agreed in Cologne? The spin machine threw out a figure of $100 billion. But this was a bundled figure, bringing together lots of old debt relief pledges. Only $45 billion of that was new money. Also, this is not money that governments will have in their budgets today to spend on health and education. Much of it is bad loans that would never have been repaid. Even where countries will see a drop in their debt service payments it will mostly be marginal, must first be agreed by the IMF, and the benefits will only be seen over a number of years.

The IMF's record on allowing countries to enter the debt relief initiative is poor. At present, storm-wrecked Nicaragua and Honduras, and extremely poor Zambia, are being held up, and are still waiting for the nod from the lords of credit.

Even so, exactly how generous was the Cologne deal for the 36 countries who are now eligible? The promise on paper of $45 billion new relief looked good. But between 1990 and 1997 just one of the G8, the host nation, spent more than eleven times that figure - more than $530 billion - to ease the former East of the country into the new, unified Germany. We also still have to wait for concrete proposals to be agreed at the annual meetings of the Bank and IMF later this year for the deal to have meaning

A recent assessment showed that when Tanzania qualifies for the new deal it will still be spending around one third of a million dollars a day on debt service, and more than it spends either on health or education. Mozambique, Bolivia and Mali will all still spend more on debt service than primary education, the first two, more than double.

Among international financial institutions, assistance and advice to the least developed countries has traditionally been the World Bank's job.

For all its faults, the Bank employs health specialists, education experts and agronomists - people who might actually come into contact with real communities. But now, through clever positioning by the IMF, the finance ministers of the industrialised countries have called for all support and debt relief going to poor countries to be adapted in particular to the neo-liberal mantra chanted by the IMF. In spite of the high profile of the World Bank's President, James Wolfensohn, his influence with the IMF has recently improved from being only an "observer" on their board, to being an "observer with special status". It is a kind of damning with feint promotion.

The evidence shows that conditions imposed on poor countries by the IMF, in return for debt relief and aid, have not worked. Christian Aid believes there are ways forward. Poor people, who bear the brunt of corruption and have the most interest to guarantee new resources are spent on health and education, should be involved in making sure that is where the money goes. Instead of a process dominated by the IMF, a new mechanism can be set up in each country which brings together local organisations, the debtor government and the creditors to decide what conditions on debt relief are appropriate. It is an approach now officially endorsed by the Ugandan government.

In the meantime, creditors must go back to the drawing board. Unless they calculate necessary levels of debt relief on the basis of what countries need to meet the agreed international poverty reduction targets for health, education and halving absolute poverty, those targets will not be met. To create space to do the sums, and because it is what many will need, Christian Aid believes there should now be a five-year moratorium on debt service payments for the very poorest countries. That would give us all a figure for debt relief that is easy to understand.

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