The new slavery.


In William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, the money-lender Shylock insists on obtaining his pound of flesh when the hero Antonio fails to repay the bond he had pledged to him. Shylock is totally unmoved when Antonio's lover, Portia makes a heart-wrenching plea for mercy. He is entitled to his pound of flesh and he will cut it out of Antonio's heart, he insists. It is only when Portia demands that he spill no blood and takes neither an ounce more nor less than his pound of flesh that Shylock is defeated.

That is fiction. The fact is that the modern day Shylocks of this world, Western banks, multinational institutions and governments have become equally immune to all the pleadings of all the Portias -- and they have been hacking our well over and beyond their pounds of flesh from the bleeding body of Africa. Unlike Shakespeare's Shylock, they are under no constraints nor to spill blood.

The fact is that Africa's debt burden, approximately $222bn, is killing Africa's children. At least a third of Africa's income goes simply into servicing debt, never mind touching the capital.

According to the charity ActionAid, if African countries did not have to repay this debt, the money released could save the lives of 21m children by the year 2000 and provide 90m girls and women with access to basic education. Instead, because of the vicious circle of debt, millions of Africans do not have clean water, are dying of easily curable diseases, the hospital cupboards are bare, schools are dosing down, industries are collapsing and war and famine stalk the land.

Consider the inequities: In 1996, Africa paid the developed world $13.4bn in debt repayment. Microsoft Corporation makes $34m a day; exactly the amount Africa pays daily in debt service. In Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, the debt burden is 80% of the country's GNP. Africa spends $22 per person on servicing its debt, double what it spends on health. The list can go on and on.

Since the 1980s, Africa has been being cut to ribbons, but still the modern Shylocks are not satisfied. The heaviest burden is falling on children. Every baby born in the developing world owes $485. What chance do future generations have of ever clearing such mountains of debt? What chance do they have of being able to live off the entire fruits of their own sweat without having to give most of it away to the perpetually extended palm of the money-lender?

In all modern societies, individuals and companies...

To continue reading