27 February 2023 marks the seventieth anniversary of the London Agreement. On that day in 1953, a broad consortium of nations meeting in London agreed to cancel about half of Germany’s foreign debt and to renegotiate the conditions of the rest. This year, activists from the Global South are calling for this to be taken as an example — and to cancel the debt of the nations of the Global South. This, as the campaign Debt for Climate argues, is also a form a climate action, as the highly-indebted countries of the Global South can neither transition to a more climate-friendly economy nor protect themselves from the consequences of global warming.
Sunny Morgan is chapter head of the Rise Up Movement in South Africa and co-founder of Debt for Climate. He has been active in social movements for almost 45 years, beginning with the fight against apartheid in the 1980s.
In the runup to the day of action, the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Nadja Charaby spoke with South African climate justice activist and Debt for Climate co-founder Sunny Morgan about the campaign’s demands and the connections between climate, debt, and colonialism.
Sunny, you’re a co-founder of the Debt for Climate campaign. What do you mean by the name, and what is the goal of your activities?
The goal of the Debt for Climate campaign is to call for the cancellation of all the financial debt of the Global South that is owed to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This is how we take direct climate action.
Here is how debt and climate are connected: nations of the Global South must explore and extract fossil fuels for export so they can earn revenue. Very often, that revenue goes directly to serve institutional debt, mostly in the form of interest payments. The odious debt repayments are crippling for nations of the Global South: they cannot pay civil servants decent wages, cannot afford to provide basic healthcare to their citizens and — as witnessed during the COVID pandemic — could not even afford vaccines, all while still paying or serving the interest on debts owed to the World Bank.
The cancellation of these debts will allow nations of the Global South to provide for the needs of its citizens, to transition to renewable energy where possible, and to build sustainable infrastructure. The cancellation is urgent and must be supported by the Global North.
You not only relate debt to the climate crisis, but also to colonialism. What are the connections between colonialism, climate change, and the debt crisis in the Global South — especially on the African continent?
We are making this connection in reference to the climate debt that the Global North owes the Global South for centuries of slavery and colonialism and the extraction of resources since the industrial revolution that have led to the climate crisis. The value of these extractions from the South to the North, coupled with the exploitation of Indigenous people, their land, and the destruction of their culture and livelihoods, remains an unpaid debt. We hold the Global North responsible for these injustices perpetrated against the Global South, and we now want the Global North to pay its debt.
The World Bank and the IMF are not the only parties that are responsible for huge debts in the Global South — multinational corporations are guilty as well.
Africa is responsible for less than four percent of global emissions, but will suffer the most egregious of its impacts. This is brutally unjust. The African region already registers an increase in temperature of 1.2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. We are seeing increases in the severity of droughts in drier regions and more rain than normal in others. Extreme weather events like cyclones are more prevalent. Scientists confirm that all this is due to climate change. So, the climate crisis is not some future event but something that is already impacting the region. I fear for our people that will experience 10- to 100-fold increases in these events soon.
What are your demands towards rich countries such as Germany or the EU? What role can or should the United Nations play?
We demand that Germany supports the call by activists and Indigenous people for the cancellation of the debt. In addition, we demand that Germany recognizes its own history, how debt cancellation benefitted Germany after World War II and accord that same courtesy to the most indebted nations of the Global South.
Germany can use its influence as a voting member of the World Bank and IMF to make this demand. The German Finance Minister, Christian Lindner, made this promise to Debt for Climate last June, but failed to do so. We are now holding him responsible. At the next World Bank/IMF meeting in April, he should table these demands as he promised to do.
The EU must also take the demand for debt cancellation seriously to account for its members who make up the bulk of colonialist nations, so they are equally indebted and need to contribute [their] fair share.
With regards to the United Nations, I’m encouraged by the statements of the Secretary-General António Gutierrez. He has been making all the correct statements about the urgency of the climate crisis and calling out the fossil fuel companies for their duplicity. The UN still has a meaningful role to play: First, it should call for the democratization of the World Bank and the IMF — in 2023, it is unconscionable that the World Bank president must be an a US citizen and that a member of the European Union must lead the IMF. It is high time to address these inconsistencies.
The next leaders of these institutions must come from the Global South on a rotation basis — this is the bare minimum of our demands. We call on the United Nations to be bold in its leadership and make these demands on behalf of the Global South, even as the United Nations itself faces demands for transformation.
Moreover, which specific historical responsibility do big corporations have, especially the ones in the fossil and extractive industries?
The World Bank and the IMF are not the only parties that are responsible for huge debts in the Global South — multinational corporations are guilty as well. Many of these corporations are responsible for collusion with corrupt governments’ politicians and shady investors. Across the African continent, corporations like BlackRock fund oil and gas exploration and extraction that have disastrous consequences for the environment and Indigenous people. At this moment, major banks continue to fund fossil fuel extraction projects that are inconsistent with the 1.5-degree climate target.
For this campaign to be a success, we need the support of all sectors of society — especially workers and unions.
These large corporations and financial institutions must be held accountable and civil society will continue to call them out for their role in the destruction of the planet. We must push for and enact ecocide laws that will result in harsh penalties and even jail time for executives and representatives of these corporations that continue to put us all in harm’s way.
You chose 27 February, the seventieth anniversary of the London Agreement on German External Debts, as an International Day of Action. Why this date, and what kind of actions are planned to take place?
27 February 1953 is the day of the London Agreement. On that day, various nations of the world met and agreed to cancel up to 50 percent of the debt of West Germany. This was just eight years after World War II, and effectively this was a get-out-of-jail card for Germany. The debt that remained was renegotiated on very favourable terms compared to the ones that are common in the Global South today, where nations are forced to pay off their debts before almost any other expenses at high interest rates and in foreign currencies. The benefits for Germany at that time have translated into a much more robust economy — the largest in Europe, and the fourth-largest in the world.
So, our contention is: what was good for Germany in 1953 should be good for the Global South in 2023. We’ll focus on Germany, and activists will protest at German embassies around the world. This will entail handing over a list of demands addressed to the German Minister of Finance, Christian Lindner. These demands are primarily that Germany must use its power in the World Bank and the IMF to call for the cancellation of the debts of the Global South, especially for those most indebted at the moment.
Germany recently announced a new set strategy in dealing with the Global South and with Africa recognizing its colonialist past and history. This would be a perfect moment in time for Germany to exercise its power, put its money where its mouth is, and support the global call for debt cancellation.
How could climate justice activists amplify and support your campaign here in Germany?
For this campaign to be a success, we need the support of all sectors of society — especially workers and unions. Their power to withhold their labour can force corporations to the negotiating table.
In addition, we want civil society and climate movements to recognize that by demanding the cancellation of the financial debts of the Global South we are taking direct climate action: if the debts are cancelled, the nations in the Global South can leave fossil fuels and minerals worth trillions of dollars in the ground.