The Darkest Thing About Africa Has Always Been Our Ignorance of It
Now a promise made is a debt unpaid,
And the trail has its own stern code.
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb
In my heart how I cursed that load.
– Robert Service, The Cremation of Sam McGee
When we think of crippling debts, we often think of Africa. Of the ongoing campaign for debt forgiveness, which is been led by organizations like Africa Action. Of the way that poor-country debt repayment cancels out our foreign aid’s effects. Of the way that debt obligations are preventing poor governments from adequately tackling AIDS, Malaria, and universal education. But I want to suggest that a lot of our thoughts on Africa’s indebtedness are outmoded. In fact, the case of government debt in Sub-Saharan Africa is a noteworthy success story.
As recently as 1999, debtloads for Sub-Saharan African countries were crippling: the average governmental debtload was over 70% of national GDP and government spending was significantly hampered. Since then, however, the World Bank launched its Highly Indebted Poor Countries initiative, debt became a top issue at the G7 summits in Kananaskis and Gleneagles, and debtloads have dropped dramatically. So dramatically, in fact, that today Sub-Saharan countries have a lower average debt-to-GDP ratio than the United States of America, the EU member states, or even the G7 countries. The debt-to-GDP ratio average for Sub-Saharan Africa is now at Canada’s much-vaunted level of 25% of Gross Domestic Product.
Now, I don’t want to impute that either the G7 or the World Bank are primarily responsible. I think that low interest rates, economic growth, and the prudence of African governments probably had a lot more to do with it. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the former Finance Minister for Nigeria, gave an arresting talk at the African TED conference in which she documents the state of the African economy and shares a memorable personal story about just why development is so essential. Perhaps if we pay people like her more attention, we’ll be able to learn more about what Africa’s pressing problems are – and aren’t.