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A Debt Crisis Seems To Have Come Out Of Nowhere (NPR)
April 20, 2018
From the article:
It's a problem that has come seemingly out of nowhere. Over the last five years a worrisome number of low income countries have racked up so much debt they are now at high risk of being unable to pay it back — with potentially devastating consequences not just for their economies but for their citizens, many of whom are already living in extreme poverty.
That's the sobering finding of a report by the IMF. And it's got some prominent experts calling for urgent action. Among them is Masood Ahmed. Twenty years ago, as a top official at the International Monetary Fund, he spearheaded a historic agreement to wipe the slate clean for 36 poor countries that were being crushed by their loan interest and repayment bills. NPR spoke with Ahmed — who is now president of the Washington-DC think tank Center for Global Development — to find out how this latest debt debacle was set in motion, why it has him so alarmed, and what can be done to avert it. (This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
Just how far and how fast has this problem spread?
To get a sense, says Ahmed, consider that of the 59 countries the IMF classifies as "low-income developing countries," 24 are now either in a debt crisis or at high risk of tipping into one. "That's 40 percent of poor countries," says Ahmed, "and it's nearly double the number five years ago."
Those in most trouble include two countries that have already defaulted on some of their loans: the Republic of Congo and Mozambique. Ahmed notes that these are not loans taken out by individual citizens. "This is money borrowed by governments," he says. "So the definition of a debt crisis is that they are not able to meet their obligations. They are already unable to pay the interest on their debt or to keep to the repayment schedule they had agreed to."
Four more countries are also already considered in "debt distress" because even though they haven't outright defaulted they've reached a point where they are making only intermittent loan payments or cutting deep into their operations budget to pay off their debt. These are Chad, Eritrea, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Zimbabwe. The remaining 16 are considered at high risk of falling into debt distress soon based on the IMF's analysis of the amount of debt they've taken on compared to how much income their economies can actually be expected to generate in the near future. These too are mostly countries in sub-Saharan Africa such as Ghana, Zambia and the Central African Republic. But the list also includes seven nations from other regions, such as Afghanistan, Haiti, Tajikistan and Yemen.