Kvangraven: An Anti-Imperialist Call for Debt Justice


Anti-imperialism must be at the centre of the fight for debt justice.

Global inequalities are not new. Any strategy to address these inequalities, and the debts associated with them, must recognize the enduring and extractive nature of capitalism and how it interacts with colonialism and imperialism, as long recognized by anti-colonial scholars such as Kwame Nkrumah, Walter Rodney, and Samir Amin.

While the deepening of global economic integration since the 1970s is often presented as having led to an increase in efficiency and the “flattening” of the world, the spread of global value chains involves rigid power imbalances and deep vulnerabilities for those at the bottom of the hierarchy. Rather than a flatting, the contemporary structuring of global production reproduces historical relations of dependence, which leaves fiscally constrained developing countries pushed to accumulate debt.

Along with weakened production structures, developing countries continue to be vulnerable to financial cycles generated by the center. As investors flock to “safe” assets (read: assets in the centre) in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been dramatic reversals of capital flows – indeed the largest outflow ever recorded. Many developing countries have experienced currency depreciations as well as severe debt and liquidity problems. As the much needed fiscal space of developing countries is constrained by these external factors, activists, academics, and policy-makers have rightly called for debt moratoria, IMF support, and debt relief as necessary policies to address the current crisis. These are important and urgent policies, but in the long-term we must be careful to not run the risk of basing policy proposals on an “analysis of ‘capitalism’ shorn of imperialism,” as Radhika Desai has written.

Addressing the debt injustices that prevail will take more than debt relief and temporary income support. An anti-imperialist debt justice strategy must also challenge the very roots of the system that allows these debt crises to recur.

The Debt Justice Working Group of Progressive International is a promising avenue to push for precisely such an anti-imperialist strategy for dealing with global debt. Because of the global and interconnected character of the debt crises unfolding, an effective movement to challenge the unjust global system that produces debt injustice must be international. The internationalism of this movement is one that not only includes actors and organizations from across the world, but also one that is premised on international solidarity.

With this in mind, the following principles for debt justice are key:

  1. Addressing an imperialist system. This means acknowledging that both the global inequalities we see, and the unfair global economic system that supports them, are linked to historical and contemporary imperialism. Addressing this means not only reforming the current financial and monetary system, including the establishment of fair, transparent and sustainable mechanisms for the cancellation of odious and unsustainable debt, but also establishing a system for reparations to be made.
  2. Tackling unjust debt at its roots. This means acknowledging that the accumulation of debt cannot be understood without the context of broader capitalist accumulation. Often, the buildup of debt can be understood more as a symptom of a larger problem, than the root of the problem itself. Working out the kind of structural change that is needed to reverse the reproduction of such debt is therefore key.
  3. Internationalism in Global Governance. This means reversing the systems of global economic and financial governance that allow unequal power relations to continue to shape global policies. An example of this could be building up and strengthening alternative institutions under the auspices of the United Nations, and breaking down the influence and power of the Western-dominated Bretton Woods Institutions.

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Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven

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