Chains Around Africa:
Crisis or Hope for the New Millennium?
May I begin this address by thanking you for the invitation and this opportunity to address you. I am most grateful to the Economic Commission of Africa and His Excellency Mr K.Y. Amoako, for hosting this event, and for the great privilege of speaking to you in this historic building. If there are any who question why a religious leader from Britain should have the temerity to address a secular gathering of this nature. I hope the reason will become clear as my concerns come through my speech. In any case, I resist the cry that Christian leaders should keep out of politics on the grounds that the founder of Christianity didn't! Our faith, in common with most of the World's religions, relates to the whole of life. We do not switch our faith on and off like an electric light bulb as we move in and out of different aspects of life!
'Chains around Africa' may seem an exaggerated description of this great continent in which Ethiopia is situated. Surely, many will say the twentieth century has been a century of astonishing progress in which Africa has shared. They will argue that of the issues which were at the top of the agenda at the beginning of the century, slavery has gone, colonialism and the overt suppression of black people by their white masters have all but disappeared and, since then, we have witnessed not only huge leaps in political and educational emancipation but also the growth of globalisation which, it is argued, puts unlimited opportunity before us all.
Furthermore, some will say, such talk of 'chains' is ridiculous when one looks at South Africa. I was privileged to be present at the historic moment when President Mandela was inaugurated as President of the people of South Africa. If you are looking for a sign of hope in these times, the dismantling of apartheid is surely one. I preached, too, at the service to mark the retirement (so-called) of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a man who himself became a symbol of hope for the black people of South Africa in those dark days of oppression. It may seem then that the description 'Chains around Africa' belongs to the world of hyperbole and does not accord with reason and reality. So what is this crisis of which I speak?
Listen to words of a Christian Aid document called The New Abolitionists: 'More children could die unnecessary deaths before the year 2000 as a result of the debt crisis that enslaves poor countries today than were killed in passage during the infamous Atlantic slave trade. For every second that passes, another child is born into unpayable debt in the world's poorest countries. From Mozambique to Tanzania ... more is spent on servicing external debt than on either education or health.'
The same document goes on to state that in the course of the Atlantic trade an estimated 24 million people were enslaved. In 1997 the United Nations Development Programme estimated that 21 million children would die before 2000 unless the debt crisis is resolved.
Africa is not alone in this of course, but of the twenty most heavily indebted poor countries, as defined by the World Bank, sixteen are in Africa. The external debt of those sixteen countries amounts to very nearly $100 billion. If you add in the figures for other countries, the total debt for Sub-Saharan Africa is $235 billion. That is the size of the problem. The extent to which these chains of indebtedness are contributing to the overall problems of Africa and the sufferings of her people simply cannot be overestimated. In Britain, every two years we have a special appeal called 'Comic Relief'. The last appeal raised an amazing £26 million; but £22 million per day is being drained from Africa in servicing its debt.
At the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Edinburgh in October, the Economic Declaration recognised this:
'We believe that world peace, security and social stability cannot be achieved in conditions of deep poverty and growing inequality.' and the Heads of Government agreed:
'to work towards a comprehensive solution of the debt problem, and pursue vigorously the rapid implementation of the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative, in line with the Mauritius Mandate.'
The Mauritius Mandate, in turn, seeks to ensure that substantial progress has been made by the year 2000, in enabling all eligible poor countries to reduce their levels of debt to sustainable levels. This is undoubtedly progress, and I am glad to be able to acknowledge the leading role that my own Government is taking in these initiatives. I was present myself at a meeting just before Christmas, called by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for International Development, in which they both pledged again their support for the task, and their willingness to listen to and work alongside faith communities and non-governmental organisations in their campaigns. (It was heart-warming to find representatives of all the main Churches and other faiths present, and of one mind on this issue.)
But the recognition of the significance of the debt problem is not new. Indeed, in 1986 the Justice and Peace Commission at the Vatican called attention to the problem in an important paper. This paper clearly identified the part which the Church has to play, and issued a significant warning:
'The Church speaks to all peoples, especially those most in need, who are the first to suffer the repercussions of these disorders and do so with feelings of fatalism, defeat, latent injustice and sometimes revolt. The Church wishes to rekindle within them the hope and confidence in the possibility of resolving the debt crisis with the participation of all parties and in full respect of each party.'
Two years later, the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops added its voice with an equally clear message:
'Crippling levels of debt which add intolerable burdens to the poorer nations of our world, raise sharp moral questions. Debt of this nature creates unhealthy dependencies of the weak upon the powerful, leads to the breakdown of the life of poor communities and threatens the relationships of international politics and finance.'
In 1990, at the opening of the Commonwealth Finance Ministers' meeting, which led to the adoption of the Trinidad proposals, the Commonwealth Secretary-General noted that 'net resources in excess of $40 billion have in the past year flowed from the poor developing countries to the rich industrial countries of the North, and, in addition, developing countries faced increasing obstacles to many of their exports'. That is a trend which continues to this day, and it is important to acknowledge that even the World Bank recognises the problem. The President of the Bank has made clear his desire to find a resolution, and as early as 1994 in the Bank's report Adjustment in Africa, it was noted that the Trinidad arrangement, and the earlier Toronto terms, did not do enough. Under the Trinidad terms, only six of the sub-Saharan African countries would be assisted towards a sustainable debt burden, whilst nine would still have a ration in excess of 300 per cent of exports.
Now, I believe that it is important for us not to get into the position of creating enemies in addressing the situation. There is a determination in the air to find a resolution, and we need to work in partnership with one another if a lasting solution is to be found. Of course, we all come at it from different perspectives. The World Bank and other financial institutions have naturally tended to see it as primarily an economic problem, and the structural adjustment programmes that have been implemented in various countries are aimed at creating more stable and productive economic conditions. They have not always had equal regard for the social consequences of their programmes, although I believe attitudes in the World Bank are changing.
Churches and other agencies working with and amongst the poorest people in the continent are likely to come from the opposite direction. Our observation is that the poor are getting poorer. And the evidence and the testimony of the churches and other faith communities should be taken seriously as we are there with our people. The evidence is that the poor are bearing the burden of this economic stringency. And we have to draw attention to that fact loudly and clearly, for even if there is reason for optimism in the long term - and we are seeing some countries now showing a very dramatic improvement in their economic growth rate - it is still wrong that, in the short term, those who suffer most should bear even greater burdens.
Debtor governments, of course, are caught in between. They realise that they have a financial duty to respond to the demands of their creditors. They have no choice. Such is the power of the international community (represented by the World Bank and the IMF) that they must comply with the conditions imposed. If they don't, growth and progress is impossible. If they do, the burden is transferred to the very poor who are crushed by the extra demands, and at a stroke isolated from a world community which is getting steadily richer as every year goes by. The irony is, as that Christian Aid publication puts it: 'Where slaves were once sent with a price attached to them, now children are born with a debt around their necks. In Tanzania each new baby owes in the region of $250; in Mozambique, $350'.
Let me briefly make reference to two countries that I have visited. In just a few days time the Paris Club of creditor governments should be meeting to discuss, again, the case of Mozambique. I do not need to rehearse the recent history of that country. It is well-known. The debilitating effects of debt on the welfare of the nation are also well-known. Indeed, the Paris Club had already agreed a programme of 80 per cent relief. That was encouraging. But to achieve some sort of sustainable level, Mozambique needs 90 per cent relief, and it seems that some members of the Paris Club wish to renege even on the 80 per cent agreement. I have to say that is wrong, and at our meeting with the British Chancellor of the Exchequer I pressed the British Government to go ahead, unilaterally if necessary, with a 90 per cent commitment. Mozambique's debt with Britain is relatively small, but it would at least be a concrete sign of our Government's commitment. Let me just remind you that, over the past ten years, Mozambique has repaid well over $500 million just in interest payments. That is sufficient to have covered the best part of three years of new debt incurred over the past ten years. In 1995, for instance, new debt of $271 million was incurred. In the same year $173 million was repaid, nearly half of which was interest. That was a good year. In 1987, the total amount repaid was $42 million. The fact is that Mozambique's debt simply is not sustainable, creditors are slow in coming to a decision on relief, and the demand to repay is condemning the country to a new form of slavery.
I could take any number of countries, but let me mention one other with which I have been closely associated over the last two years or so. I do not need to repeat the details of the disaster that befell Rwanda in 1994. The determination of the Rwandese people to rebuild their nation in the face of monumental difficulties is remarkable. But their problems are not only political and social, serious as those are. Rwanda is a classic example of a country whose export earnings suffered a severe blow through the price crash of their main commodity - in their case, coffee. In 1989, the ratio of their debt to export earnings was 400 per cent - serious enough, but not disastrous. By 1994, in a situation compounded by the virtual total destruction of their industrial base in the genocide, the ratio had risen to 1080 per cent. It has gradually improved since then, but Rwanda desperately needs economic stability in order to strengthen its political stability. Yet it is not one of the countries which is considered to qualify for special consideration by the IMF. That must be questionable.
I could go on, and I recognise that it is in some ways invidious to pick out individual countries, but in naming just two, I want you to know that I recognise the crisis which is facing the whole of Africa, and I join my voice to many others from many walks of life to address the economic powers of the world. We need to work together to confront the crisis directly and urgently so that the Millennium can truly be seen to be a time of new beginnings for this great continent of Africa.
Crisis and Kairos
And I believe that is possible. There is a temptation today to use dramatic language rather too freely. Everything is portrayed, as it were, in banner headlines. Sound-bites are the stuff of journalism, and so keywords like disaster and crisis are employed at every opportunity for they catch people's attention. But there is a problem, therefore, when a crisis persists. The media attention span is often short, and the general level of interest amongst the public even more difficult to sustain. But the crisis which Africa faces has been in the making for very many years, and African peoples have been seeking to resolve the problems themselves, often quite alone. One of the most desolate cries I have heard on my visits is 'We are forgotten'. I understand why people feel that way. They are noticed internationally - or so it seems - only when disaster strikes or when some event occurs which directly affects us in the West. As one recent commentator has noted:
"The beauty, tenacity and hopefulness in the vast majority of African communities is never conveyed, nor are their own efforts to transform the economic and political structures that perpetuate the inequalities which sustain chronic hunger
And that is very important. It is easy to assume that if there is to be a solution to the problems, it will eventually come at some moment when creditor institutions finally agree decisively to forgive debt. And so we look to the future, and we wait and we hope, and we look to others. And the crisis continues.
But there is an alternative way of looking at things, which, if I may allude briefly to a concept of time in Biblical theology, may help us all to work more constructively together to address Africa's crisis.
Christianity, like Islam and other great world faiths, is a historical religion. We trace our story back through time to particular points in history. Indeed, the chronology of the world has been profoundly affected in this way by the very widespread dating of history to the birth of Jesus Christ - albeit with a slightly uncertain starting point.
Interestingly, the New Testament has two words for time: 'Chronos' from which our word 'chronology' comes refers to ordinary time, marked by our watches and clocks and calendars. But there is another word for time which speaks rather of the significance of a moment in time - in the same way that a particular date might always remain significant for us because of its association with an anniversary, such as a wedding, or the award of a degree, or indeed, when we have lost a dear friend. This word 'kairos' speaks profoundly of hope, of God breaking into ordinary time and filling it with his presence. It is a 'jubilee' moment in which a new start is made.
I believe we have arrived at a decisive moment for Africa. We must not allow it to pass, nor to threaten us in any way. Rather, it is the moment of opportunity. It is, as the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Tabora wrote recently:
"a Kairos, a very positive moment, a moment for critically and deeply evaluating the present situation and the past decades."
I would simply want to go one step further to say that it is the moment also for concerted action.