Activists observe global action against debt and IFIs

NewAge, October 18, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

Across the world, the slogans of the activists in the debt movement are: ‘debt trap is death trap’; ‘we don’t owe, we won’t pay; ‘cancel all debts of the people of the South immediately and unconditionally’; and the North must pay back all historical and ecological debts to the people of the South’, writes Mohiuddin Ahmad*

This week, from October 14 to 21, is being observed by millions of activists across the world as Global Action against Debt and IFIs (international financial institutions, such as, the World Bank and the IMF). One major thrust of the week of global action is the demand for immediate and unconditional cancellation of all ‘illegitimate debts’ across the globe that had been and is still channeled through corrupt and oppressive regimes for no or little benefit accruing to common people. At least 297 organisations from 60 countries are participating and are expected to raise issues around illegitimate debt cases in the week-long programme of actions.

Among the most important events that mark this week are:

October 15: the 20th death anniversary of Thomas Sankara, former president of Burkina Faso, who called for repudiation of debt
October 16: World Food Day
October 17: International Day to Eradicate Poverty; Stand Up and Speak Out Mobilisations
October 20: World Youth Day
October 19-21: IMF-WB annual meetings

Some of the loan agreements signed in Bangladesh during the 1980s may be bracketed as odious and illegitimate. KAFCO is one such example. We have also observed many ‘development deals’ signed by our ‘democratic’ regimes in the 1990s and the 2000s, particularly in defence, transport, telecommunications and energy sectors, where large-scale payment of kickbacks is smelled. Some of the cases are now pending in the court. The billion-taka question is why the poor people would be forced to pay back for the crimes committed by the international lenders and the national thugs.

Among the examples of illegitimate debt cases is the infamous Zhong Xing Telecommunication Equipment Corporation-National Broadband Network (ZTE-NBN) deal between the governments of the Philippines and the People’s Republic of China. The USD$ 329 million ZTE-NBN contract would have led to a new case of illegitimate debt. Philippines debt campaigners, legislators and the protesting public successfully forced the Arroyo administration to cancel the contract. Numerous issues were raised against the contract, amongst which are questionable process and lack of transparency; overpriced and grossly disadvantageous; clear violation of Philippines laws; lack of proper bidding and kickbacks received by government officials in the deal.

The case of the Netherlands-Bangladesh computer deal may be mentioned in this respect. This is another example of unscrupulous deal between the ‘donor’ and the irresponsible managers of our state. Recently a Dutch court gave its verdict in favour of the Dutch company that was supposed to supply computers and accessories under the guise of a grant-cum-loan and now the people of Bangladesh have to pay ‘compensation’. It is time to demand that this ‘compensation’ be arranged by confiscating the assets of the persons in the government and the bureaucracy who signed the deal.

Debt campaigners around the world are united in calling for the immediate cancellation of huge illegitimate debts –– the ‘dictatorship debts’ of Liberia amounting to US$1.47 billion multilateral debt and US$ 833.9 million bilateral debt. These debts were incurred by the dictatorial regimes during the West African nation’s years of civil strife. These debts should be unconditionally cancelled, and given the gravity of Liberia’s social and economic situation it should be cancelled immediately and without delay.

The clamour for governments and international financial institutions to recognise the issue of illegitimate debts is starting to generate responses. In 2006, the government of Norway cancelled the debts (amounting to US$ 80 million) claimed from five developing countries, Ecuador, Egypt, Jamaica, Peru and Sierra Leone. The Norwegian government extended loans to 21 countries from 1976 to 1980, including the 5 countries, so that these countries will buy Norwegian vessels and shipping equipments. This was at a time when the Norwegian shipping industry was in a crisis. It turned out that the ships could not be used at least by the five of the 21 countries. The Norwegian government acknowledged that this was a bad policy and accepted part of the responsibility of the debts incurred. Thus, the Norwegian government cancelled the remaining repayments of these debts.

Recently the World Bank (WB) and United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) released draft versions of a paper on Odious Debt in response to the demand to study the issue of illegitimate debt. However, upon the initial review of the debt campaigners, these have been criticised as being lopsided.

The Platform of the Global Week of Action has issued the following statement on the eve of the week:

We demand from North and South governments and international financial institutions the following:

1. Open, transparent and participatory parliamentary and/or governmental debt audits in both South and North countries; full cooperation with citizens’ groups for independent citizens debt audits, including the global citizens audit of the lending operations and related policies of the World Bank and IMF, regional development banks and export credit agencies.
2. Immediate and 100% cancellation of multilateral debts and all illegitimate debts as part of the total cancellation of debt claimed from the South, without externally imposed conditionality; repudiation of unsustainable, unjust and illegitimate debt.
3. Full transparency and accountability to citizens in the implementation of debt cancellation and debt repudiation; democratic decision-making and implementation to ensure that funds freed from debt cancellation and debt repudiation are used for genuine, equitable and sustainable development.
4. Immediate end to the financing and enforcement of neoliberal policies and projects through debt related conditionality:
• Stop the privatisation of public services and the use of public resources to support private profits;
• Stop using debt and aid as leverage for unfair trade agreements;
• Stop the promotion of environmentally destructive projects such as big dams and harmful mining of oil, gas coal and other dirty energy;
• Stop the escalation of climate change.

On October 15 the World Bank Campaign Europe organised a public hearing on the World Bank in co-operation with the Permanent People’s Tribunal in The Hague and organised a programme, the World versus Bank, one week before the annual meetings of the World Bank.

During this week, labour movements, trade unions, and migrant workers’ groups in Asia/Pacific will hold simultaneous action programmes. For example, In Bangladesh, the Economic Justice Working Group (EJWG) will hold a programme on Food Sovereignty & IFIs on October 23.

In Seoul, the students of the MA course on Inter-Asia NGO Studies (MAINS) at Sungkonghoe University will organise a People’s Tribunal on the Ecological Debt of TVI, a Canadian Mining Company, against the Subanen community in Zamboanga Del Norte in the Philippines. The Subanen is an indigenous community in the Zamboanga Peninsula in Mindanao affected by the mining activities of the said Canadian firm and the government is an accomplice to the ‘crime’. Besides, the Joint Action against Water Privatisation will hold a press conference in front of the City Hall of Seoul to condemn the city government’s recent declaration to corporatise its water and lay off 230 workers.

In Manila, a workers-led rally dubbed as ‘Workers March against IFIs’ Privatisation Programme and Violations on Workers Rights’ will be held in front of the ADB (Asian Development Bank) main office. Jubilee South – Asia Pacific Movement on Debt and Development (JS-APMDD) and other groups will also be spearheading series of activities focusing mainly on the effects of privatisation on the public sector workers and consumers in general and the ‘must’ role of the government to provide these services. On Oct 21, the Asian Migrant Centre, along with its network of migrant organisations in Asia, will celebrate the ‘Indonesian Migrant Workers Union 8th anniversary’, a cultural event, which will also be a campaign activity against underpayment and excessive agency fees.

Throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, the Week of Action will highlight on debt campaigners lending their support to the Continental Mobilisation of the Indigenous Peoples of Abya Yala, in support of their demands for respect and the defence of their cultures, territories, natural resources and for the recognition and payment of the historical debt which the nation-states, the Catholic church, and power centres in the North have been accumulating with them for last 515 years. In Nicaragua, campaigners will have a Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal on Union Fenosa jointly organised by Hemispheric Social Alliance-Central America Chapter, the Biregional Latin America – European Union Network, and the Nicaraguan Committee of the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal (TPP).

Across the world, the slogans of the activists in the debt movement are: ‘debt trap is death trap’; ‘we don’t owe, we won’t pay; ‘cancel all debts of the people of the South immediately and unconditionally’; and the North must pay back all historical and ecological debts to the people of the South’.

*Mohiuddin Ahmad is a writer and a researcher. He is the chairperson of the CDL (Bangladesh) and chairperson of the Jubilee South-Asia Pacific Movement on Debt and Development. Presently he is teaching at Sungkonghoe University, Seoul. He can be reached at mohi2005@gmail.com

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