Mobuto Sese Seko's corrupt rule of Zaire <br>left billions in unpaid loans.
Mobuto Sese Seko's corrupt rule of Zaire
left billions in unpaid loans.

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Briefings: The Debt of Dictators

Jan 22, 2008

The Debt of Dictators
California Newsreel, 2005
Written and directed by Erling Borgen

The Debt of Dictators by filmmaker Erling Borgen is a good introduction to the central questions of Third World debt: Whose debt is it, and who is going to pay? Much of the debt was incurred by kleptocratic dictators to finance brutal repression and lavish lifestyles. Today it is the impoverished people who are paying the price, especially the children who live sick and die hungry. Borgen travels to Argentina, South Africa, and the Philippines to tell their stories.

These three nations all experienced state violence, disenfranchisement, political torture, "disappearances," and corruption. International banks, corporations, donor countries, and financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund kept the loans coming despite such odious behavior. The governments of these nations now spend a considerable chunk of their annual budgets servicing those debts, often more than what they spend on health, education, and welfare combined.

Without adequate social spending it is nearly impossible for countries to develop healthy and sustainable societies. Debt thus becomes a trap. As anyone with a credit card knows, if you're just paying interest and not reducing the principal then the debt never disappears.

The prime symbol of corruption in the Philippines during the Marcos era was the elaborate fashion of the president's wife Imelda. Her thousands of designer shoes are now housed in a museum while slum children scavenge the Manila dump barefoot, hunting for plastic and other valuables they can sell. In South Africa, where graves are dug ahead of time because AIDS kills so many so fast, the government has stoically chosen to repay the apartheid debt so as not to scare away investors. In Argentina, people scavenge trash for food and subsist in shantytowns without basic sanitation and drinkable water.

These are obvious harms, difficult to alleviate while a country labors under a heavy debt burden.

One of the conundrums of modern politics is that we participate in collective decisions but pay the price as individuals. Few issues illustrate this as clearly as debt, which has become a question of intergenerational ethics. It is conceivable that in some developing countries the majority of the population will soon be younger than the loans they are forced to repay.

The question of debt is analogous to an argument that Leif Wenar makes in relation to international resource sales by corrupt regimes: A country's people are the rightful owners of a country's resources, but dictators are selling those resources without the people's consent, resulting in theft. Inherited debt can be seen as theft of hope and future wellbeing.


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