Letters from TZ

They owe us one

It’s funny how money changes situations. That’s a line from a Lauryn Hill song that captures in a nutshell the sorry state of our global consciousness. Ms Hill is hailed as one of the more socially conscious singer/songwriters of her generation. She broke ground as part of The Fugees, an American Afro-soul/hip hop group that provided a soundtrack for black empowerment during their heyday in the 1990s. When the group disbanded, she released the critically acclaimed ‘Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’, a black power/girl power chronicle of her life experience.

On the first line of the second track of the album, Lauryn makes an observation that we can apply to almost every bad situation in Africa. The track is aptly titled ‘Lost Ones’, and it should be funny how money changes situations, but in truth, it’s the saddest thing.

For years, sovereign states across the African continent have been enslaved to donor states, banks and other money-lending, do-gooders, on account of massive debt. We are mortgaged to the hilt, and it looks like our children will bear down under the heavy burden of that debt for generations. I suppose it was too good to be true when the colonising powers made that spectacle of relinquishing their stronghold on the continent and its resources.

Which is not to say that the African leadership is blameless. They sold our souls and gained the world. Meanwhile, we continue to participate in a farcical democracy to choose leaders that are already selected. I suppose we must genuflect at the feet of democracy, in whatever form it takes because, obviously, it is preferable to having a strong man at the helm. It is becoming harder and harder to throw money at strong men who don’t have a democratic mandate from the people. Whatever that really means in Africa. But I digress.

Last week, sections of the press reported that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is still very much in the business of lending money to African governments. ‘IMF, Dar seal recovery deal’ read one headline. The paper reported that the Bretton Woods institution had pledged 91 billion shillings to cushion the country against “economic shocks”. IMF resident representative Thomas Baunsegard said that the money was not a “direct concessional loan” but was rather some sort of insurance policy within an agreed Policy Support Instrument (PSI).

After the briefest look at the definition of a ‘PSI’ it sounds suspiciously like the loathsome ‘SAPs’ (Structural Adjustment Programmes) that were so popular with the Fund in the 1980s. PSIs are designed to assist countries to design effective economic programmes that – once approved by the IMF’s Executive Board – signal to donors, multilateral development banks, and markets that the Fund has endorsed their policies. In other words, to signal that a country’s policies suit their lending purposes.

SAPs were economic policies that countries had to follow in order to qualify for new World Bank and IMF loans, and help them make repayments on older debts. SAPs generally required countries to devalue their currencies against the dollar, lift import and export restrictions, balance their budgets and not overspend, and remove price controls and state subsidies.

I will admit to being completely biased when it comes to poor countries taking massive loans from rich countries, and then paying them back at exorbitant rates of interest, but a PSI sounds suspiciously like an SAP in the emperor’s new clothes.

If the 99 per cent benefited more from these expensive loans, there would be less to moan about. But while we are still struggling with basic issues like free education, universal healthcare and infrastructure, it seems almost immoral. And even more so when children and children’s children will likely be paying off the debts of their fathers until kingdom come. Hopefully, 10, 20, 50 years down the line we will start to see what the debt we are paying off, actually paid for. But until then, it remains a bitter pill to chew over.

A while back, during a heated discussion around issues of governance, someone made a remark about the ownership of nations. “Every country has its owners,” he said, as if to say that citizens have no stake when it comes to the real dealings that cause a country to run. Nothing validates that kind of thinking more than the very existence of entities like the so-called ‘Bretton Woods’ institutions. It seems they have a bigger stake in our countries than we do.