How cancelling 'made-up' debt could help the UK meet aid targets

Treating debt relief for Sudan as charity will allow aid targets to be met at no cost.

"The UK will not balance its books on the backs of the poorest," David Cameron told the G8 summit in May, reiterating his pledge to spend 0.7 per cent of national income on international aid by 2013. The International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell has echoed this sentiment, saying it is "absolutely clear that we stand by this commitment". That may be -- but some political sleight of hand could help to meet this target.

Back in the 1970s, the UK government backed loans to Sudan to buy British exports. These commercial loans were given by the little known department UK Export Finance (formerly ECGD) winning business for Britain, and keeping Sudan on side during the Cold War.

However, floods and droughts in the 1980s, along with rising US interest rates, led to the country defaulting on its repayments to the western world. The bill outstanding to the UK was £173 million.

Over 25 years later, the claimed debt has now risen to £678 million, and is increasing by £20 million a year. This huge increase is due to notional interest rates of 10-12 per cent being charged every year on the original debt.

The debt claimed from Sudan is effectively made-up money. Yet it could help the UK meet aid targets in the years ahead.

In June, South Sudan gained its independence. The north of Sudan has agreed to keep all the debt, so long as it is allowed to enter an international debt relief scheme within two years.

If and when Sudan achieves debt relief, the UK will "cancel" the debt. Given no repayments have been received for a quarter-of-a-century, this will cost nothing. The government then intends to treat this cancelled debt as aid, and count £678 million -- or whatever figure has been reached by then -- as a contribution to meeting the target to spend 0.7 per cent of national income on aid.

Counting debt relief as aid is nothing new. In the years following the invasion of Iraq, the UK cancelled 80 per cent of the debt inherited by Iraqi people from Saddam Hussain. The cancellation was counted as aid even though the UK loans had included money for Saddam to buy weapons and parts for a chemical weapons factory.

However, the reduction in Iraq's debt, as well as that of Nigeria, did not count towards meeting aid targets. Under current plans, any debt reduction for Sudan will too.

The UK's approach reinforces a narrative that all debts have to be paid, and it is an act of great charity and benevolence on the part of creditors to cancel them. But questions need to be asked about the origin of loans, and responsibilities of lenders as well as borrowers.

In Sudan's case, the UK government says it does not even know what the original loans to dictator Gaafar Nimeiry were for. The government could learn the lessons of past failed lending by implementing Liberal Democrat policy to audit all debts, something Vince Cable, the minister responsible, has so far not been minded to do.

But in Sudan's case, we know the loans from UK Export Finance were driven by Britain's own commercial interest to win contracts and strategic interest in the Cold War. The repayments then became too high because of drought, flood and global economic crisis. The debt was too big in the 1980s and as with all debts that are too big, needed to be repudiated, cancelled or reduced. Instead the debt was kept on the books and inflated by ridiculous interest rates.

In total, Sudan is said to owe $12 billion to western governments. Mostly due to the same high interest rates charged by the UK. If and when this is formally cancelled, if it is all used to meet aid targets, it could knock 12 per cent off official aid for one year.

Treating debt relief as charity will allow aid targets to be met at no cost. It will also sweep under the carpet a history of bad lending, allowing the same mistakes to be made again.

Tim Jones is policy officer at the Jubilee Debt Campaign

Tim Jones is policy officer at Jubilee Debt Campaign. Jubilee Debt Campaign is part of a global movement demanding freedom from the slavery of unjust debts and a new financial system that puts people first.

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change