How Capital Flight Drains Africa: Stolen Money and Lost Lives

James K. Boyce and Léonce Ndikumana

In most financial scams, the victims simply lose their money. In Africa, some lose their lives.

Sub-Saharan Africa experienced an exodus of more than $700 billion in capital flight since 1970, a sum that far surpasses the region’s external debt outstanding of roughly $175 billion. Some of the money wound up in private accounts at the same banks that were making loans to African governments.

Inflows of foreign borrowing and outflows of capital flight are closely intertwined. As we document in Africa’s Odious Debts, there is a strong correlation between the two. For every dollar of foreign borrowing, on average more than 50 cents leaves the borrower country in the same year. This tight relationship suggests that Africa’s public external debts and private external assets are connected by a financial revolving door.

How does it work? Common mechanisms include inflated procurement contracts for goods and services, kickbacks to government officials, and diversion of public funds into the bank accounts of politically influential individuals. Some of Africa’s flight capital comes from other sources, too, such as earnings from oil and mineral exports. But foreign loans make an exceptionally easy mark in that there is no need to bother with the messy business of extracting natural resources to convert them into cash.

Principals and agents

The history of finance is littered with examples of the hazards of lending other people’s money and borrowing in other people’s names. In theory, bankers are meant to serve the interests of their depositors and shareholders by making prudent loans that will be repaid with interest. In practice, however, they often are rewarded above all for “moving the money,” getting loans out the door. In the wake of the U.S. financial crisis, this issue belatedly began to attract attention at the U.S. Fed.

An analogous principal-agent problem operates on the borrower side, where government officials negotiate and disburse loans on behalf of their citizens. Some borrow in the name of the government, line their pockets and those of their cronies, and saddle the public with the debt.

When a fraction of foreign borrowing is siphoned abroad, Africa still receives an inflow of money, albeit less than the face value of the debt. The net drain comes in subsequent years when the creditors are repaid with interest.

Using World Bank data, we estimate that each additional dollar of external debt service means that 29 fewer cents are spent on public health, and that each $40,000 reduction in health expenditure translates into one additional infant death. Putting these together, we calculate that debt-service payments on loans that fueled capital flight translate into more than 75,000 extra infant deaths annually. It is not only money that is being stolen in Africa: it is human lives.

What is to be done?

The hemorrhage of scarce resources from Africa can be curbed. Efforts by some African governments to recover wealth stolen by past officials have won international backing in the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative launched by the World Bank and United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. More can and should be done to identify looters and their accomplices and to repatriate stolen funds.

Tougher anti-money laundering laws and enforcement are needed to staunch the illicit financial flows from Africa into safe havens abroad. In the United States, Treasury Department officials concede that banks routinely accept deposits of funds that enter the country in violation of existing laws. Moreover, the banks currently are not prohibited from handling proceeds from many activities, such as tax evasion, that would be considered crimes if committed within the U.S.

More transparent information about financial inflows to African governments would also help. Much as the Publish What You Pay campaign launched by international NGOs promotes disclosure of corporate payments for natural resource extraction, a Publish What You Lend campaign could strengthen transparency and accountability in financial markets.

Last but not least, African governments should be encouraged to selectively repudiate debts incurred by past regimes that cannot be shown to have been used for legitimate purposes. The doctrine of odious debt in international law provides a basis for repudiation of debts from which the public derived no benefit, when creditors knew or should have known this to be the case. Added legal grounds for selective repudiation are found in the principle of domestic agency in British and American law, which requires agents to act in good faith in the interest of their principals.

These steps would not only benefit Africa’s people today. They also would help to repair our dysfunctional international financial architecture, strengthening incentives for the exercise of due diligence by creditors and for responsible borrowing by governments. Without these changes, debt relief can offer only a temporary palliative. In the world of international finance, Africa needs justice, not just charity.

James K. Boyce and Léonce Ndikumana are the authors of Africa’s Odious Debts: How Foreign Loans and Capital Flight Bled a Continent, published by Zed Books in association with the Royal African Society, the International African Institute and the Social Science Research Council.

6 Responses to “How Capital Flight Drains Africa: Stolen Money and Lost Lives”

  1. […] as James K. Boyce and Léonce Ndikumana explain, Wall Street’s tentacles reach much further, into the heart of Africa. Sub-Saharan […]

  2. […] updates material from these same two authors that I wrote about in Treasure Islands. Now, from the Triple Crisis site, I note the authors have written this article, reposted with permission: How Capital Flight Drains […]

  3. hello my commet is that first and fore most the europian bank keep receiving african stolen money.and world bank is looking. united nation is there. world court is there. yes europian where is your justice and your whole organization is currupt.remenber injustice cannot last forever.stop it. we african are wise now there no fool any where any more. is not good for we black african look down europia as enemy of progress of african. but if you can not help live us a lone stop corrupting the president. best regards jerusalem jeje wiseman,

  4. africans united party logo( injustice cannot last forever) remember nothing last forever end has come for africans world communities build on corruption. if its that changes have to come befor its too late look the people you stolen there wealth get to no your evil doing how you soppurt the 15% percent corrupted government.with your big big guns dem it.this is the era of truth gadem guns is not going to work. simple and easy live us alone and get your big big guns out of our land.hello world communities you are generating differences amongs new generations. europia student and american student believed sub saharan africans are the souce of there communities you are building everlasting ethic enemities between black and white.first you are the master of colonization time have come for the slave to be free forever from economics oppressions,your dead aid that your logo of corruption.stop this foolish games and lets help you out of your deficit we have the resources to feed the whole world.we have the resources for world budget in a empirical dynamics regards jerusalem jeje wiseman,

  5. If you want to take much from this paragraph then you have to apply such techniques to your won website.|