Illegitimate debt: demanding justice beyond solidarity
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Source: Observatorio de la Deuda en la Globalización and Campagna per la riforma Della Banca Mondiale
Fri Apr 11 2008

Thanks to pressure from social organizations, and from governments such as that in Norway, the World Bank agreed to participate in a round-table discussion about odious debt and responsible financing, which will be held on April 14th, 2008, at its headquarters in Washington DC. This round-table discussion, which will be equitably attended by members of civil society and academics on the one hand, and by World Bank staff and government representatives on the other, is an important step on the road to the recognition of debt illegitimacy.

"The fight against debt is a battle to change power relations"
Nairobi Declaration on debt repudiation (June, 2006)


1. Context

The history of the struggle for debt cancellation is full with successes and missed opportunities. For more than a decade, civil society organizations with different backgrounds, academics, and even government representatives and those of multilateral bodies, have been discussing points of view, strategies and alternative proposals with varying degrees of success in the attempt to reach a consensus. The issue of illegitimate debts (and illegitimacy of debt) has for many years been at the heart of these discussions. The existence of different, and sometimes differing, strategies among debt movements has often reflected different points of view regarding the recognition of debt illegitimacy, or different definitions about what constitutes illegitimate or odious debt.

Starting from different approaches and perspectives, and after hundreds of meetings, encounters and debates, organizations and networks from both South and North eventually got together in Havana in September, 2005, in an attempt to draw up a joint strategy. At the end of the meeting an historic consensus was achieved: the recognition of illegitimate debt as the core issue in addressing the problem of debt in impoverished countries. Out of that consensus there arose the common commitment to launch a South-North International Campaign on Illegitimate Debt.

Since then, different meetings and initiatives have taken place, one of the most important of which is the Call for the first Week of Global Action against Debt and IFIs. Those involved in organizations and networks have carried out case studies, undertaken political lobbying campaigns (in particular, the Parliamentarians’ Declaration for shared responsibility in sovereign lending ), organized events and programmes devoted to audit training, initiated citizens audit processes and carried out many schemes to increase public awareness. Significant progress has also been made at an institutional level, such as Norway’s decision to write off 80M$ of debt to 5 countries, thereby acknowledging shared responsibility in the generation of irresponsible debt , or the launching of the Debt Audit in Ecuador.

In this context, and at the request of the Norwegian government, the World Bank and the UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) both issued reports on “Odious Debt”. These documents, “The Concept of Odious Debt: some considerations” issued by the World Bank Department of Economic Policy and Debt , and “The Concept of Odious Debt in International Public Law” by Robert House at the request of the UNCTAD were published in September, 2007. In the case of the World Bank, this report was the object of much criticism for being largely dismissive with the concept of “Odious Debt”, for being partial and incomplete as well as for its manifest avoidance of the debate about the illegitimacy of debt . Thanks to pressure from social organizations, and from governments such as that in Norway, the World Bank has agreed to participate in a round-table discussion about odious debt and responsible financing, which will be held on April 14th, 2008, at its headquarters in Washington DC. This round-table discussion, which will be equitably attended by members of civil society and academics on the one hand, and by World Bank staff and government representatives on the other, is an important step on the road to the recognition of debt illegitimacy.

Although we have already come a long way, much still lies ahead before recognition of debt illegitimacy is fully achieved. The way forward involves finding spaces for debating the different conceptions and definitions surrounding illegitimate debt, agreeing on common strategies, methodologies and indicators for the analysis of such debt and for working together on this analysis, particularly in setting in motion new processes for auditing debt. While the final aim of this forward thrust may not be an absolute consensus, it is still necessary to reach closer agreement and to carry out joint measures and strategies. The purpose of this document is to bring to the fore factors we consider useful for moving towards the desired goal.

-> See full document (pdf format)

-> See also World Bank paper on odious debt: Dismissive and limited, Eurodad’s response to the World Bank’s September 2007 discussion paper: “The concept of odious debt: some considerations”

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