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Cancel debt burdens of low-income African countries, Government urged

25 October 2023

Half the British public agrees private lenders should cancel debt, Christian Aid reports

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CHURCH leaders in the UK have supported demands that the Government cancel the “unsustainable debt burdens” on low-income countries in Africa to prevent more communities’ falling into poverty.

In an open letter circulated by Christian Aid on Monday, a group of 13 African faith, charity, and academic leaders write: “Our shared values compel us to address the pressing issue of unsustainable debt burdens that have been inflicting immense suffering upon people in lower income countries for far too long.

“Our communities face the growing devastation of the climate crisis, they are still recovering from the pandemic and continue to experience the knock-on impact of conflicts such as in Ukraine.”

The letter is supported by eight UK faith leaders, including the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Most Revd Mark Strange; the President of the Methodist Conference, the Revd Gill Newton; and the Recording Clerk of Quakers in Britain, Paul Parker.

It says that more than $1.1 trillion in external debt is hanging over African countries. “This financial strain has dire consequences for achieving global sustainable development and climate goals.”

The letter continues: “While we recognise with gratitude what the UK has done in reducing debt owed to public bodies, including the UK Government, it can do more to reduce the debt burden perpetuated by private creditors.”

It says that, from 2023 to 2029, 41 per cent of the external-debt repayments of lower-income countries are owed to Western private creditors. “They have so far chosen not to participate in debt-relief processes, and distressingly refused to suspend debt repayments even at the start of the pandemic. As a result, much of the savings made by debt-repayment suspension from other creditors [has] been redirected in repayments to private creditors, severely undermining other relief measures.”

The leaders urge all UK political parties to make a commitment — before the next General Election — to legislation that would force private creditors to participate and establish a debt moratorium during debt-restructuring negotiations. “This would prevent the acceleration of payments under English law while negotiations are ongoing.”

An accompanying poll from Christian Aid suggests that more than half the British public (54 per cent of the 2197 UK adults interviewed online by Savanta last month) agrees that the Government should introduce legislation to encourage private lenders to cancel debt when lower-income countries are in crisis.

More than half of the respondents (56 per cent) agreed that it was “wrong” that lower-income countries were unable to pay for health, education, or to respond to the climate crisis because of debts owed to private lenders. Just eight per cent disagreed.

One of the signatories, the general secretary of the Council of Anglican Provinces of Africa, the Ven. J. W. Kofi deGraft-Johnson, said that it was “heartening to see a majority of Britons acknowledging the unbearable burden of debt on low-income countries. The plea for debt cancellation is not just about economics. It’s a moral call for solidarity, compassion, and justice, too.”

The director of policy, public affairs, and campaigns for Christian Aid, Osai Ojigho, said: “Too many families in the lower-income countries are struggling to survive. Despite this, debt repayments are taking away resources that are vital for coping with the health, social, and economic crises resulting from the pandemic. Moreover, lower-income countries simply cannot afford to invest in mitigating and adapting to the impacts of the climate crisis such as flooding and hurricanes.

“The UK has a moral obligation to lead the world in compelling commercial lenders to cancel debts that are plunging communities around the world into hunger and poverty. Now is the time for political leaders to lead.”

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