Ethiopian & Nigerian Leaders Want Debt Cancellation; UNGA President: Infrastructure for Food and Health

Informal economy in Africa (courtesy Grandmother Africa)

May 7, 2020

Human life in Africa is threatened more by the COVID-19 pandemic than any other continent due to the appalling living conditions for the majority of the population.  During lock-down conditions, millions of Africans are faced with the choice of trying to just subsist day by day working in the informal economy to make enough money to feed one’s family or stay home and go hungry.  However, the informal economy itself is part of the problem, since it no health insurance, no unemployment insurance, and income is precarious at best. The very existence of the informal economy is a malignancy that should have been eliminated decades ago, and replaced with an industrialized economy.

The International Labor Organization (ILO), estimates the total world labor force is 3.3 billion people, and about 2 billion of them, or 61% of the total, are working in the informal economy. The vast majority of such informal workers (93%) are to be found in the Third World. In the first month after the pandemic hit their countries, laborers in the informal economy suffered an average 60% drop in their income. Now, 1.6 billion of those 2 billion informal workers—almost 80% of all informal workers—have lost their jobs or are about to. Tragically, Africa has 86% of its labor force working in the informal economy-the highest of all continents.

RFI reports that Nigeria, with over 200 million people, has 40% of its population living in life threatening poverty. According to the country’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), from September 2018, to October 2019, 82.9 million Nigerians earned less than 400 Naira-($1) per day. In Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), which compromises the majority of the continent with almost 1 billion people, 41% live in extreme poverty-$1.90 per day or less. The NBS reports that poverty in Nigeria’s rural areas is more than 50 percent. The economic cruelties of life in Nigeria typify conditions throughout SSA.

Muhammadu Buhari
Muhammadu Buhari Photographer: Drew Angerer/Getty Image

Life is More Precious Than Debt

Prior to COVID-19 pandemic, African nations required a debt moratorium to save the lives of their people. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic intersecting the existent conditions of poverty, food insecurity and lack of healthcare infrastructure, Africa leaders are demanding debt cancellation, to prioritize addressing the economic and health needs of their nations. Kenya, Senegal, South Africa, Ethiopia and Nigeria are asking for debt relief.

Following Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy’s op-ed in the April 30 edition of the New York Times, PM Abiy wrote  on May 1, that there is an “urgent need for the Global Health Pledging Conference.” In his essay, “ PM Abiy: A Pledge to Combat COVID-19 in Africa, he  outlines the urgency for debt cancellation.

Up to now, there has been a huge disconnect between the rhetoric of rich-country leaders – that this is an existential, once-in-a-century global crisis – and the support for the world’s poor and developing countries [is more] than they seem willing to contemplate. Indeed, until last week, African countries were spending more on debt payments than on health care.”

“In 34 of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 45 countries, annual per capita health spending is below $200 – and barely reaches $50 in many of these countries. Such low levels of spending make it impossible to fund acute-care hospital beds, ventilators, and the drugs needed to confront diseases like COVID-19. Paying for doctors, nurses, X-ray technicians, and other health professionals, together with their equipment, can seem almost like a luxury.”

Nigerian President Mahammadou Burhari, echoed PM Abiy’s demand for debt cancellation, in a May 4 meeting with heads of state from the Non-Aligned Movement. President Buhari “urged official lenders to help cushion the pandemic fallout with outright debt cancellation,” according Alonso Soto of Bloomberg. The article reports that, “nearly half of Nigeria’s outstanding external debt is with multilateral lenders, led by the World Bank Group with $10.1 billion. Beijing-based Export-Import Bank of China is the second-biggest creditor with loans totaling $3.2 billion, while Eurobonds account for $10.86 billion or 39% of external debt.”

The author with Amb Tijjani Muhammad-Bande at the Nigerian Mission to the UN-August 2019

Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, President of the United Nations General Assembly, discussed how the spread of the coronavirus is a threat to those already suffering from poverty and food insecurity in a May 1, op-ed by published by Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. In his statement, Preventing a Pandemic Induced Food Emergency, Ambassador Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, head of the the Nigerian Mission to the UN, wrote: “two billion people did not have regular access to safe, nutritious, and sufficient food prior to the outbreak of the Coronavirus.  Indeed, hunger has been on the rise globally for the past four years

“The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating pre-existing inequalities, putting immense strain on tenuous systems; and plunging those in the most precarious contexts deeper into poverty and hunger.

“In many places, travel restrictions aimed at containing COVID-19 has reduced access to markets; and the purchasing power of millions of people has been decimated as a result of an exponential increase in unemployment rates.  Moreover, school closures have disturbed the main source of nutrition for over 370 million children around the world.

“Those suffering from hunger are at greater risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms as a result of associated health conditions, such as malnutrition and non-communicable diseases, which compromise the immune system. Compounding this is the fact that those who are hungry are often trapped in poverty and do not have access to health services, water and sanitation facilities, or indeed the space to quarantine or practice social distancing.

“In both our rapid response to the pandemic, and our long-term planning, it is imperative that we link food security to health interventions and investment in infrastructure.” (emphasis added)

 

For more analysis of COVID-19 and Africa, read my previous posts below:

Lawrence Freeman is a Political-Economic Analyst for Africa, who has been involved in the economic development policy of Africa for 30 years. He is the creator of the blog: lawrencefreemanafricaandtheworld.com

Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed: Debt Cancellation for the World to Survive

Coronavirus testing supplies being unloaded at the Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in March.
Credit…Tiksa Negeri/Reuters

Lawrence Freeman

May 1, 2020

Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, has made an audacious salient call for debt cancellation for low income countries. It was published in the Opinion section of the April 30, New York Times, Why the Global Debt of Poor Nations Must Be Canceled, (printed in full below). PM Abiy is correct, debt cancellation is absolutely necessary to save lives and for developing nations to survive the COVID-19 pandemic. To compel a nation like Ethiopia to spend almost half of its revenue on debt service, while its people are suffering from a perfect storm of Desert Locust swarms, food insufficiency, and a weak healthcare infrastructure, is immoral if not criminal. PM Abiy wrote:

“At the very least, the suspension of debt payments should last not just until the end of 2020 but rather until well after the pandemic is truly over. It should involve not just debt suspension but debt cancellation…

“These steps need to be taken with a sense of urgency. The resources freed up will save lives and livelihoods in the short term, bring back hope and dynamism to low-income economies in the medium term and enable them to continue as the engines of sustainable global prosperity in the long term.

“In 2019, 64 countries, nearly half of them in sub-Saharan Africa, spent more on servicing external debt than on health. Ethiopia spends twice as much on paying off external debt as on health. We spend 47 percent of our merchandise export revenue on debt servicing…

“The dilemma Ethiopia faces is stark: Do we continue to pay toward debt or redirect resources to save lives and livelihoods?”

PM Abiy’s analysis of the urgent need for the cancellation of debt service is relevant to the exacerbating effect of COVID-19 in Africa’s rising food insecurity.

image
Smoked fish produced in Ghana is sold all over the country and in neighboring Togo – as long as transport routes and borders can remain open for the movement of food to markets. Credit Jane Hahn/Oxfam America

COVID-19 Worsens Food Crisis

In the month from March 30 to April 30, COVID-19 cases in Africa rose from 4,760 to 37,296-800% increase, and the total of deaths from 146 to 1,619-1,100% increase.  Experts are legitimately concerned, that millions more may die from hunger and poverty as a result of the needed efforts to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Closing borders, stay at home orders, loss of income, interruption of supply chains, and disruption of traditional animal migration cycles inauspiciously contribute to amplifying food insecurity.

“If the pandemic worsens, as many as 50 million more people could face a food crisis in the [Sahel} region,” according to Coumba Sow, Food and Agricultural Organization Resilience Coordinator for West Africa in her interview: FAO: COVID19: 50 Million in Sahel Could Face Food Crisis. Coumba Sow reports that across West Africa, 11 million people need immediate food assistance and that this number could rise to 17 million in the period from June to August. She says that it is “crucial to anticipate COVID-19’s impacts on agriculture, food security and the lives of vulnerable women and children. Ensuring that food systems and food supply chains are maintained is one of the most important action to take at national and regional levels.”

The World Food Programme (WFP) projects that the number of people facing acute food insecurity could rise from 135 million to 265 million in 2020 as a result of COVID-19.  According to the WFP, five of the countries that had the worst food crisis in 2019 were located in Africa; Nigeria, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Arif Husain, economist for the WFP said: “COVID-19 is potentially catastrophic for millions who are hanging by a thread. It is a hammer blow for millions more who can only eat it they earn a wage. Lockdowns and global economic recession have already decimated their nest eggs. It only takes one more shock—like COVID-19 to push them over the edge.”

Mauritanian herders (Courtesy of UN-FAO)

 A New Financial Architecture Required

While debt cancellation is essential, international and federal mechanisms are required to issue i.e. create new lines of credit to build up nation-wide advanced healthcare infrastructure, which all African nations lack. This endeavor should be part of a much larger undertaking to place African nations on a path to become developed industrialized economies.  I discuss the importance of emerging nations  to generate physical economic wealth in my earlier article: World Needs New Economic Platform to Fight COVID-19. Trillions of dollars of new credit must become accessible for African nations to address the dearth of infrastructure in energy, roads, railroads, and healthcare, that is literally killing Africans, every day. Successful transformation of African nations requires an urgent focus on nurturing combined manufacturing-agricultural processing industries. Speaking at a Johns Hopkins webinar on April 22, Gyude Moore, former Liberian Minster of Public Works (2014-2018) emphasized that creating manufacturing jobs is essential to transitioning to a more developed economy.

What has been glaringly brought to the surface by the combined COVID-19 pandemic and the malnourishment of Africa’s population is; that the global economic-political system of the last five decades has failed. A new financial architecture is compulsory to save lives and put civilization on the trajectory of progress. This new financial architecture should encompass the following essential missions in Africa:

  • Cancellation of debt
  • New credit generation for physical economic growth
  • Massive investment in hard infrastructure
  • Urgent mobilization to establish modern health infrastructure
  • Significant upgrading of manufacturing and agricultural sectors

It is unacceptable in the twenty-first century for every nation not to be equipped with advanced modern healthcare infrastructure.  One of the most egregious defects of globalization is that nations have become dependent on imported food from thousands of miles away because it is somehow construed to be cheaper than producing food at home.

Nations exist to foster the continuation of a human culture moored to the conception that human life is sacred. There is no equivalency between servicing debt and safeguarding human life.  Money really has no intrinsic value. Banks are mere servicing bureaus of an economy.  Governments legitimately create credit to generate future physical wealth to benefit their citizens. When borrowing or lending arrangements fail to benefit society then they should be restructured or cancelled. Such financial reorganizations have been achieved many times throughout history.

PM Abiy has brought to the attention of the world, a profound underlying principle that should govern all national and international policy: the promotion of human life is supreme, monetary instruments are not.

Delaying the repayments to the Group of 20 is not enough.

By rime Minister of Ethiopia. Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, 2019

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — On April 15, Group of 20 countries offered temporary relief to some of the world’s lowest-income countries by suspending debt repayments until the end of the year. It is a step in the right direction and provides an opportunity to redirect financial resources toward dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

But if the world is to survive the punishing fallout of the pandemic and ensure that the economies of countries like mine bounce back, this initiative needs to be even more ambitious.

At the very least, the suspension of debt payments should last not just until the end of 2020 but rather until well after the pandemic is truly over. It should involve not just debt suspension but debt cancellation. Global creditors need to waive both official bilateral and commercial debt for low-income countries.

These steps need to be taken with a sense of urgency. The resources freed up will save lives and livelihoods in the short term, bring back hope and dynamism to low-income economies in the medium term and enable them to continue as the engines of sustainable global prosperity in the long term.

In 2019, 64 countries, nearly half of them in sub-Saharan Africa, spent more on servicing external debt than on health. Ethiopia spends twice as much on paying off external debt as on health. We spend 47 percent of our merchandise export revenue on debt servicing. The International Monetary Fund described Ethiopia as being at high risk of external debt distress.

The dilemma Ethiopia faces is stark: Do we continue to pay toward debt or redirect resources to save lives and livelihoods? Lives lost during the pandemic cannot be recovered; imperiled livelihoods cost more and take longer to recover.

Immediate and forceful action on debt will prevent a humanitarian disaster today and shore up our economy for tomorrow. We need to immediately divert resources from servicing debt toward responding adequately to the pandemic. We need to impede a temporary health crisis from turning into a chronic financial meltdown that could last for years, even decades.

Ethiopia must spend an extra $3 billion by the end of 2020 to address the consequences of the pandemic, while our balance of payments is set to deteriorate. Increasing health care spending is essential, irrespective of debt levels, but we have less money on hand, and much of it is due to creditors.

A moratorium on bilateral and commercial debt payments for the rest of this year will save Ethiopia $1.7 billion. Extending the moratorium till the end of 2022 would save an additional $3.5 billion.

Low income countries can use the financial resources freed up by cancellation or further deferment of debt repayments to invest in our battle against the pandemic, from providing necessary medical care to our citizens to ameliorating our financial difficulties.

In October, the I.M.F. reported that the five fastest-growing economies in the world were in sub-Saharan Africa, which includes Ethiopia. In early April, the World Bank reported that sub-Saharan Africa would face its first region wide recession in over 25 years and the region’s economy could shrink by as much as 5.1 percent.

This is not a result of bad policies, mismanagement or any other ill typically associated with developing economies. The recession will be the product of the coronavirus outbreak.

Preventing or at least minimizing the recession is critical to maintaining years of hard-won economic gains across the continent. The current moratorium in bilateral debt collection until the end of the year will help, but it won’t be enough, given the gravity of the challenge we face.

The moratorium must be extended until the coronavirus health emergency is over or canceled altogether. The creditors need to do this unconditionally.

Official bilateral creditors are no longer the principal source of external debt financing for many developing countries. Private-sector creditors, including investment banks and sovereign funds, are. They should play their part in the effort to rescue African economies from permanent paralysis with a sense of solidarity and shared responsibility. It would help avoid widespread sovereign defaults and chaos in the market.

And it would be morally indefensible if resources freed up from a moratorium in bilateral debt collections were to be used to pay private creditors instead of saving lives.

Most of our countries managed to borrow funds on the back of solid economic performance and highly promising and evidence-based development programs and trajectories. Nobody foresaw this promise being derailed by a once-in-a-century event such as the coronavirus pandemic.

Under these circumstances, there is no room for traditional arguments such as moral hazard. Low-income countries are seeking relief not because we squandered the money but because we need the resources to save lives and livelihoods.

It is in everybody’s enlightened self-interest that the borrowers be allowed breathing space to get back to relative health. The benefits of rehabilitation of the economies of the hardest-hit countries will be shared by all of us, just as the consequences of neglect will harm all of us.

Read: New Economic Order Required to Combat COVID-19 in Africa

Lawrence Freeman is a Political-Economic Analyst for Africa, who has been involved in the economic development policy of Africa for 30 years. He is the creator of the blog: lawrencefreemanafricaandtheworld.com