Since the end of the Cold War sub-Saharan Africa has witnessed a second wind of change. Movements towards democracy are growing and the opportunity to rebuild economies after years of war has emerged in countries such as Mozambique, Ethiopia and Eritrea, but the level of debt is stifling Africa's opportunity to recover.
In the last decade alone sub-Saharan Africa's debt has trebled to dollars 183bn. It now exceeds the region's total gross national product. Just paying the interest on the debt costs the region a quarter of all exports, dollars 10bn a year.
As overseas aid agencies, we witness the effects on poor people of Africa's debt burden. This draining of scarce resources means there are fewer funds available to tackle the real problems facing the majority of Africans - inadequate health, education, shelter and nutrition. Such services continue to deteriorate under the twin impact of debt repayments and inappropriate structural adjustment programmes.
It is now nearly three years since John Major proposed the Trinidad Terms, a package that would reduce the debt of the most indebted low-income countries by two-thirds. Since then the UK government has gone further, suggesting its willingness to support 80 per cent debt reduction for these countries.
We strongly urge the Government to continue to press for all the G7 leaders to adopt the Trinidad Terms, as the first phase of a complete write-off of debt for the poorest and most indebted countries.
As the G7 leaders know all too well, Africa's debt is unpayable. They also recognise that we have interlocking economic interests. At a time of deep recession an impoverished Africa is not in anyone's interest. A more prosperous Africa would buy more of our products, which would mean more jobs and much- needed growth.
The Group of Seven has responded to the crisis in the former Soviet Union by supporting an economic base for democratic change. That same support is needed for Africa's emerging democracies, or else these opportunities for accountable government will soon unravel, and the plight of poor people will continue to deteriorate.
DAVID BRYER, Director, Oxfam; MARK GORMAN, Development Director, Help the Aged; MARTIN GRIFFITHS, Director, Actionaid; NICHOLAS HINTON, Director, Save the Children; RICHARD MILLER, Assistant Director, Cafod; MICHAEL TAYLOR, Director, Christian Aid
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