Africa and the debt trap

In its latest “Economic Outlook” for Africa published on 7 December last year, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) does not hide its scepticism about the evolution of the African economies. The average growth forecast for the zone is certainly rising, however, going from 2.8% in 2017 to 3.34 in 2018. Africa is benefiting mainly from the recovery in commodity prices and the timid recovery of global growth thanks to better access to international markets.

Nonetheless, as long as debt growth remains above GDP growth, the fiscal position of African countries will only deteriorate. The IMF therefore considers that out of the 35 countries in the zone, 15 of them are in debt crisis or are in the process of becoming over-indebted. This situation is all the more worrying because some of the international donors are somewhat cold about the idea of buying African debt while some countries have disappointed with regard to the transparency of their management of public debt.

Today, history is repeating itself: the countries most affected are those that have built their growth mainly on the export of raw materials, hydrocarbons or minerals. With falling prices, national currencies have collapsed, making debt repayment more difficult. So much so that servicing of the debt absorbs up to 60% of the public revenues of certain countries. This means a lot of money lost for key sectors such as education, health and infrastructure: the only type of spending that will prepare our countries for the demographic challenge ahead.

We sometimes hear about that the level of African debt is not as high as it is in Western countries, for example, and that Africa has therefore no reason to make special budgetary efforts. This ignores two elements specific to African countries: firstly, the feeble capacity to mobilise tax revenues given the predominant weight of the informal sector in our economies as well as the limits our administrations experience in coping with multiple tax evasions, and secondly, the rates at which we borrow are much less advantageous than those enjoyed by Western countries.

The IMF stresses that despite the significant progress made over the last 20 years, Sub-Saharan Africa still has the lowest revenue-to-GDP ratio in the world. Its median level was 18% in 2016, i.e. five percentage points lower than other emerging or developing countries. The IMF is still repeating what we have known for a long time: Sub-Saharan African countries must and can increase their tax revenues by three to five percent of GDP. This amount would be much higher than that received annually by the region in international aide, which, in any case, is shrinking dramatically or is focused on security aspects related to terrorism and migration.

There is no miracle solution to the debt trap. In order to consider the development of a country in the long term, we need to build inclusive and sustainable growth based on three pillars: rigorous fiscal management; a significant increase in tax revenue; a strengthening of the attractiveness to foreign investors. The solutions are known, but they require political courage and an ability not to give in to short-term measures. Here begins the economic independence of our continent: be careful not to make the mistakes that have cost us dear in the past.

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