THE majority of African countries spent more repaying external debts than on healthcare or education – and in some cases both – last year as the continent experienced its worst debt crisis in a generation, according to a new report by the international aid agency Christian Aid.

Researchers calculated that African governments spent over 50 times more on external debt payments than the entire UK aid budget to the continent in 2023, with 32 spending more on debt than healthcare and 25 spending more on debt than education. As a consequence, millions of children are missing out on school and pregnant women are unable to give birth in a hospital, or with the help of a midwife.

UK charity Christian Aid’s Between Life and Debt report – which is backed by former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown who led global debt relief efforts in the 2000s – claims debt in low income countries is holding back their development and leading to lives unfulfilled or cut short.

Christian Aid warns that without tackling the debt crisis,. the Sustainable Development Goals will never be reached. It is calling for urgent action from the UK government to wipe the debts of lower income countries – a move which approaching half (45 per cent) of Britons agree with, according to new polling released alongside the report.

The research reveals that Sudan – where millions are facing acute hunger – spends more than ten times more on external debt servicing than healthcare. Meanwhile in Malawi, where just 15 per cent of children complete secondary school, twice as much is spent on debt than education.

Gordon Brown said: “Africa, despite rapid improvements, is the only region expected to lag behind the rest of the world in life expectancy by 2050. The scale of this inequality between Africans and the rest of the world is so great that I am not sure the world will ever forgive us for failing to deliver urgent debt restructuring.

“In many African countries, more money is being spent on debt payments than on health or education, and so debt restructuring is a matter of life and death.”

A new poll conducted by Savanta for Christian Aid reveals the majority (62 per cent) of Britons believe it is wrong that more than half of African countries spend more money on external debt than on health, education or combatting the climate crisis.

A similar number (57 per cent) think it “absurd” that African counties spent more than 50 times more on external debt payments than the entire UK aid budget for Africa in 2023

As approximately 90 per cent of the debt owed to private creditors by lower income countries is governed by English law, Christian Aid is calling on the Government to introduce legislation to:

  • Ensure private lenders play their part in cancelling debt when lower income countries are in crisis; something that nearly half (48 per cent) of Briton’s agree with.
  • Tackle predatory private creditors who lend recklessly and charge the highest interest rates. At 6.2 per cent, they are almost double that of Chinese lenders (3.2 per cent), and far higher than multilateral (one per cent) and bilateral (1.3 per cent) lenders.

“This would help create a fairer system, prevent future crises and improve the lives of millions”, said the report author Jennifer Larbie, Head of UK Advocacy and Campaigns at Christian Aid.

Last month, Gordon Brown, along with 65 prominent global leaders and public figures, called on the New York State Legislature to pass the Sovereign Debt Stability Act. The New York Act is similar to legislation proposed by Christian Aid in the UK. Both build on a 2010 UK Act of Parliament which ensured private lenders took part in a previous international debt relief scheme. New York, alongside the UK, is the other key jurisdiction for government debt.

Larbie added: “Decades after independence, many African countries are trapped in a debt crisis which is not of their making with no way out. Rather than building hospitals and schools and training doctors and teachers, they have no option but to line the pockets of predatory private creditors.

“The UK Government, as a former colonial power, has a moral responsibility to support urgent debt relief for low income countries so that millions of people can rise out of poverty. It’s a question of economic and social justice.”

Chief researcher for the report, Tim Jones, Head of Policy at Debt Justice, added: “Our new analysis reveals in stark terms just how much African nations are being forced to divert funding from crucial public services to pay external creditors. The figures confirm that the continent is experiencing the worst debt crisis in a generation, consigning millions to a life of poverty and ensuring the world will fail to meet the Sustainable Development Goals.”

The current debt crisis is rooted in the 2008 financial crisis which led to a period of lower growth and stagnating poverty levels. These were compounded by subsequent shocks, including Covid-19, the ongoing climate crisis and the Russia-Ukraine war, which has led to soaring food prices and rapidly increasing interest rates.

African government external debt payments will be at least 18.5 per cent of budget revenues in 2024, the highest since 1998, researchers said. This is almost four times as much as in 2010, and the highest of any region in the world.

* Read: Between Life and Debt here.

* Source: Christian Aid