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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.