July 5th 2010

The rocky road to media credibility

debt

On my wall hangs the original of a cartoon of 12 June, 1999 by the FT’s Ingram Pinn. It is of an African bent over double by a burden of debt, while G8 leaders sit at a table perched precariously on top of the burden – ignoring the suffering African.  The impoverished man is surrounded by campaigners, hollering at the G8 and with banners proclaiming: “Cancel the Debts” “Jubilee 2000”.

Behind that cartoon lies a story.

It is linked to the announcement last week (FT 4th July, 2010) that, after a record seven years of negotiations, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have finally “triggered” (note the careful phrasing)  a $10.8bn write-off of the debts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Its a story that I hope  illuminates how great break-throughs in a campaign are seldom the result of deliberate and careful planning.   Several eggs were broken in the making of this one.

People often complain to me that it is not easy campaigning on e.g. climate change, financial reforms or maternal survival.  I tend to scoff at that, because believe me, it was not easy campaigning for debt relief for countries like the Congo (then Zaire).  It was even more challenging persuading ‘hacks’ that our campaign was worth reporting. Hard-nosed journalists took little notice, regarding the Jubilee 2000 team as a bunch of bleeding-heart liberals.

Among the hard-nosed there was none more sceptical than Michael Holman, at the time the Financial Times’ highly regarded Africa editor.

Arranging meetings with FT journalists was not easy. And so I was delighted when the Provost of Southwark, the Very Rev. Colin Sleeinvited Holman and myself to an informal lunch at the Cathedral, which happens to be located opposite the FT’s offices. The purpose was to discuss the Jubilee 2000 campaign, and ascertain if the FT would consider giving support.

I knew of course that this was a vitally important encounter, and that I should try very hard to win Mr Holman over to our case. However it did not take long before my diplomatic guard was down, and defences up. The conversation became, shall we say, heated.

This was because Mr Holman had chosen to raise the subject of corruption in Mobutu’s Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  For many today the wicked dictator is already a forgotten, discredited figure; but at the time he and his country enjoyed the greatest notoriety in western circles. His self-ordained title only too aptly described the President’s style: “the all-powerful warrior, who because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, sweeps from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.”

Mobutu certainly left fire in his wake.

But there was more to his story than that. We at Jubilee 2000 had done our research, while ‘cutting the diamond’ for the debt relief campaign – and had unearthed a long-buried 1982 report by a German Central Banker Erwin Blumenthal. Sadly, I cannot point you to it on the web. To this day, a quick Google search only throws up academic references to the report. The link I have provided above is to an IMF account of Blumenthal’s activities that can only be described as a whitewash.

The report itself is no doubt still buried, out of sight, in a locked vault in the IMF’s building in Washington.

I cannot now recall how we got hold of it because of course the IMF had worked hard to suppress it. My recollection is that it simply appeared in a brown envelope – delivered by a whistle-blower. As those were the days before scanners were readily available, we did not scan it on to our computers, and so an extensive search through my personal archives does not throw up a copy. But then my 1997 computer’s storage capacity was limited and its ‘floppy disks’ have long been lost. However a later article has survived.

In the 1982 Report Blumenthal explicitly warned the IMF against new lending to Mobutu, because of the scale of the President’s corrupt diversion of funds into his personal bank accounts. Blumenthal argued: “there is no, I repeat no chance on the horizon for Zaire’s numerous creditors to get their money back. .Mobutu and his government show no concern about the  question of paying off loans and the public debt. There was, and there still is, one sole obstacle that negates all prospect: the corruption of the team in power.”

Far from deterring powerful creditors this honest banker’s report appears to have egged them on. Between the time of the publication of Mr. Blumenthal’s report and 1989, the International Monetary Fund had trebled the volume of loans to Mr. Mobutu and his central bank. Indeed in the year after the report, Mr. Mobutu was granted the biggest loan ever given to an African government.

These loans – like all IMF loans – took the form of hard currency – in other words, dollars. The local currency was the Zaire, unacceptable to foreign banks. The hard currency loans arranged by Washington made it easier for Mobutu to purchase, amongst other assets, villas in the south of France, or to charter a Concorde aircraft from Air France for personal use, and undertake shopping trips to Paris.

Over that lunch at Southwark Cathedral, I relayed this long, sad tale of collusion between Washington and Mobutu to Michael Holman and challenged him to accept the main thrust of our case.  That  it takes two to tango. For every borrower there is a lender.  Corruption is a coin with two sides.

He was not persuaded. The lunch ended on a sour note, and I apologised to the Provost for effectively losing my temper with Holman.

On returning to the office I reported back to the media team. They were not impressed.

A few weeks later, on the 12 May, 1997, I picked up a copy of the Financial Times.

There on the front page was a sensational exposure of the Blumenthal report.  The FT had done their own research, and uncovered the central banker’s attack on lending to Mobutu.   Holman’s article nailed powerful and respectable international creditors for financing Mobutu’s corruption.  “For twenty years” the FT asserted” western presidents, generals, spies and bankers made no attempt to curb his excesses, but saw him as a necessary ally against communism.”

It was a timely piece. On May 16, 1997, following failed peace talks, Tutsi rebels and other anti-Mobutu groups captured Kinshasa. Mobutu was overthrown by Laurent-Désiré Kabila, supported by the governments of Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda – and died of cancer in September, 1997.

But it was also a turning point in Jubilee 2000′s relationship with the FT, whose confidence in our analysis had been bolstered by the ‘discovery’ of the Blumenthal report.  After that, and to the surprise of many influential decision-makers, both in London and Washington, the paper regularly expressed editorial support for Jubilee 2000. This ‘third party endorsement’ was a major breakthrough – and we had Mobutu, Blumenthal but above all, Michael Holman to thank for it.

Today’s news – that fully thirteen years later, the Congo has had debt relief ‘triggered’ by the IMF – caused me to look again at that cartoon.  It was a gift from Michael, dated 30 June, 1999 and reads: “Dear Ann I thought you might like a campaign souvenir…..”


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