‘Bob Geldof, you are not our messiah’

DeRoy Kwesi Andrew, Ghanaian co-producer of the film Damned by Debt Relief, on how post-Live 8 'charity' is strangling poor countries.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

spiked is the online partner of the Battle of Ideas, the two-day festival of debate that will take place in London on 28 and 29 October 2006. In the run-up to the Battle, we will publish a series of taster interviews with some of the speakers and participants. In the second in the series, Brendan O’Neill talks to Ghanaian teacher and filmmaker DeRoy Kwesi Andrew, who will be speaking in the session Damned by Debt Relief at lunchtime on 28 October.

Remember last year when Bob Geldof, Bono, Blair and others excitedly declared that they had liberated poor African countries from crippling international debt?

In June 2005 the finance ministers of the G8 industrialised nations struck a deal worth a seemingly whopping US$72billion that cancelled the debt of 18 of the poorest countries in the world, 14 of them in Africa. Geldof described it as a ‘victory for millions’. At his subsequent Live 8 jamboree – where the Great and the Good of the pop world banged out tunes in the name of winning further debt relief and aid commitments from the West – Geldof declared that ‘all the debt must be written off’. At the G8 meeting in Gleneagles from 6 to 8 July, the big powers copperfastened their commitment to debt relief and agreed to double overseas aid commitments by 2010. ‘Tomorrow, 280million Africans will wake up for the first time in their lives without owing you or me a penny from the burden of debt that has crippled them and their countries for so long’, Geldof said (1).

So how’s that working out for those on the receiving end, for those who live in the poor African countries that have been liberated from debt? ‘It is rubbish. It stinks. This debt relief is making things worse.’ DeRoy Kwesi Andrew doesn’t mince his words. He is a science teacher and BA student in his twenties who lives in Accra, the capital of Ghana, one of the countries whose debt was written off. Over the past year he has been working on the film Damned by Debt Relief, a scathing critique of the economic and political straitjacket imposed on the poor countries that signed up for debt relief, produced by the youth education charity WORLDwrite and which will be premiered at the Battle of Ideas in October. ‘Debt relief has given us nothing, nothing’, he says. ‘But it has taken away very much: our independence, our ability to develop, our self-respect. My message is: “Take away your debt relief. Bob Geldof, get off our backs”.’

‘Debt relief’ is one of those buzzphrases – like ‘sustainable development’ or ‘diversity’ – that everyone agrees is a Good Thing. After all, who could be for unsustainable development? Who could possibly be against the cancellation of African and other countries’ debts? It was always ridiculous that a country like Ghana should have been in debt to the tune of $6billion to institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Most people will think it’s good that, after Gleneagles, Ghana has been awarded multilateral relief of $4.2billion, writing off a sizeable chunk of its earlier, crippling debt. Andrew says the truth is a lot less rosy. For a country like Ghana, debt relief has meant nothing in terms of increased investment or more resources, but it has meant the country being forced to submit to more stringent international regulation of its spending habits and priorities. ‘This is the fact about debt relief’, says Andrew. ‘It does not deliver development and it also denies us the freedom to pursue development. Do you expect people in Ghana to jump up and down for that?’

‘Debt relief has done nothing for the poor’, he says. For a start, it does not mean any new money, investment or resources whatsoever. The G8 governments agreed to pay off the monies owed to the World Bank and others by the worst-hit debt-ridden nations – a total of $72billion. All of that will be deposited into the vaults of international banks, not invested into poor countries. The money will be transferred from G8 treasuries to the coffers of international banks in stages over the next 40 years. Andrew says: ‘You know what happened? The G8 nations helped out their friends in the international banks. They bailed them out. It was a transaction between the G8 and their banks. It was nothing to do with me, or Ghanaians, or Africans.’

Worse, while providing nothing in terms of new resources or investment, the post-G8 debt relief programme ties poor countries into a relationship of child-like dependency with international institutions. The new debt-relief initiatives allow for massive increases in Western intrusion into virtually every area of life and politics in developing nations, especially relating to development policy itself. In the 1980s and 90s, international institutions imposed notorious structural adjustment programmes on to debt-ridden Third World countries, forcing these nations to adopt austerity measures and privatisation policies in return for some debt alleviation (2). Such programmes were criticised by NGOs and liberals in the West. Now, however, the new debt-relief programmes celebrated by some of those same NGOs and liberals as a great breakthrough for history and humanity push conditionality even further, and make it even stricter. They tell Third World countries how to run their affairs, prioritise their investments and they insist on regular check-ups to make sure these countries are adhering to ‘good policy performance’ (3).

As Kewsi Pratt Jnr, a Ghanaian editor and journalist interviewed for Andrew’s film Damned by Debt Relief, argues: ‘What has the G8 done? The G8 has said they are going to wipe off 100 per cent of our debt. What are they saying in real terms? What they’re telling us is that you owe us so much we are not going to take the money from you. You generate the money yourself, through taxation, through your productive activities and so on – don’t pay it to us, keep it, but we are going to tell you how to invest that kind of money. It’s incredible. No country in the West would accept that another country or another institution in a foreign land should be determining its priorities and how it spends its money. It is arrogant, insulting. It is repugnant.’ (4)

In the 1980s and 90s debt relief was a cover for monetarist economics and structural adjustment programmes. Today it comes with ‘pro-poor’ and ‘poverty reduction’ conditions attached; these might sound more palatable and PC than the conditions that went before, but they amount to the same thing – a situation where the West says what is best for the Third World. Indeed, today’s debt-relief conditions – which are more likely to be enforced by worthy charity heads from Islington than by cocky World Bankers from New York or Chicago – are even more intrusive than yesterday’s. In order to win debt repayment or relief today, Third World countries must agree to mould their political and economic life – the very lifeblood of sovereign states – around the diktats of Western governments and banks. At the meeting of the G8 finance ministers in London last June, it was decreed that ‘in order to make progress on social and economic development, it is essential that developing countries put in place the policies for economic growth, sustainable development and poverty reduction: sound, accountable and transparent institutions and policies; macroeconomic stability; the increased fiscal transparency essential to tackle corruption, boost private sector development, and attract investment; a credible legal framework; and the elimination of impediments to private investment, both domestic and foreign.’ (5) Andrew points out that such demands are really about ‘surveillance’ of the Third World: ‘They want to keep a check on everything we do, all our records, all our transactions. There is no independence here at all.’ And considering that debt-relief today is based on a Performance-Based Allocation system – where countries have to demonstrate ‘good policy performance’ in order to avoid having further monies deducted by the World Bank – these states had better toe the line, or else (6).

For Andrew, the worst thing about the new debt-relief programmes is that they expressly forbid developing countries from investing in the productive base of their economies – instead they must concentrate on small-scale, ‘pro-poor’ policies that are designed to alleviate (only ever incrementally, if at all) the harsh conditions of the country’s poorest people. ‘It says “pro-poor” and that sounds nice’, says Andrew. ‘But for us it means we cannot decide what to do with our money and our economy, and it means we can never have real development, real factories, real industry.’ As Mohammed Issah of the SEND Foundation, another interviewee in his film, argues: ‘If there is this condition which does not allow the government to invest resources into the production base of the economy, then we have a problem.’ (7)

It isn’t really surprising that debt relief has ended up ‘strangling’ Third World countries in this way – after all, it is the branchild of the World Bank and the IMF, and was only subsequently taken up by Third-World charities, the Make Poverty History campaign, celebs and the Live 8 lot. With the harsh-world realisation that some poor countries simply could not afford to repay their debts, in the 1990s the World Bank and IMF set about finding new ways to relate to and manage the economic affairs of these countries. Motivated by a desire both to deepen their influence on developing nations and to boost their flagging moral authority, they launched the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative in 1996. In 1999, they launched the ‘enhanced HIPC’, which eased some of the fiscal criteria of the first-phase HIPC while introducing some of today’s new, stringent conditions based on the World Bank’s Poverty Reduction Strategy. For all Geldof and co’s claims that their concert and their march to Gleneagles ‘forced’ debt relief on to the agenda, what really happened at the G8 meeting last year was that the debts of those countries that had signed up for and agreed to the strict conditions of the HIPC initiatives were written off. What was widely celebrated as people power forcing faceless bureaucrats to ‘do something’ for poor Africans was in fact the final stage in a process of repackaging austerity that was kickstarted by the World Bank and the IMF themselves in the mid-1990s. Live 8 merely provided a radical-sounding soundtrack to the World Bank’s agenda.

What is most refreshing about DeRoy and WORLDwrite’s film is that it is packed with interviews with the kind of people we don’t normally hear from – with Ghanaian journalists, academics, activists and workers, all questioning the dubious ‘benefits’ of debt relief and expressing their desire to make Ghana a fully developed, industrialised nation. But then, why should we need to hear from these people, when Bono declared last year that, ‘I represent a lot of people [in Africa] who have no voice at all… They haven’t asked me to represent them. It’s cheeky but I hope they’re glad I do.’ (8) ‘He doesn’t represent us’, says Andrew. ‘Neither does Geldof or Blair. My message to them is: “You are not our messiah. We don’t need you.”’

Andrew is most concerned about the message today’s debt-relief programmes send: that full-scale industrial development must be off the agenda. ‘Why should we accept this blueprint from the West, this blueprint of sustainable development? We do not want sustainable development. We do not want mud huts. We want concrete houses with slate roofing. We want cars. We want everything you in the West have, and even more than that.’ Andrew grew up in Yiwabra, a village in the Aowin Suaman district in the Western Region of Ghana. His parents were peasant cocoa farmers who used axes, hoes and machetes to farm the land. ‘You should see what it did to them’, he says. ‘They became old, injured, tired, because they were living “sustainable” lives. What they really needed was a combine harvester. We are sick of being told we must live simply because it is our cultural heritage. If Bob Geldof wants to come and live in a mud hut and do my mother’s farming, he is welcome.’

Andrew performed well at various local schools and later went to study in Accra – a city he describes as ‘full of high expectation, full of the colours of life, but also full of drudgery and stress’, and where he now argues with people, ‘at every opportunity I get’, for less debt relief and more development. For him, the most poisonous part of recent debt-relief and ‘poverty reduction’ campaigning is the idea that a certain level of poverty is acceptable. ‘They talk about raising people’s incomes from one dollar a day to two dollars a day. Who wants two dollars a day? Do you? We should not graduate poverty like this. Poverty is not acceptable in any form, anywhere. So please, leave us to develop our way out of poverty.’

DeRoy Kwesi Andrew is introducing the film Damned by Debt Relief at the Battle of Ideas on 28 October. The film is produced by WORLDwrite, whose website is here. Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

(1) Debt deal just the beginning, Sydney Morning Herald, 13 June 2005

(2) Damned by debt relief, Ceri Dingle and Steve Daley, Battle in Print

(3) Damned by debt relief, Ceri Dingle and Steve Daley, Battle in Print

(4) Damned by Debt Relief, film, 2006

(5) See Doing the sums on debt, by Daniel Ben-Ami

(6) Damned by debt relief, Ceri Dingle and Steve Daley, Battle in Print

(7) Damned by Debt Relief, film, 2006

(8) See What do pop stars know about the world?, Brendan O’Neill, BBC News, 28 June 2005

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Topics Politics


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