Who Owes Whom?

The new idea of ecological debt rearranges relations between the global South and North

The new idea of ecological debt rearranges relations between the global South and North

The amount Ethiopia pays towards its debt to international lending institutions is four times the amount it spends on health care. In order to meet their debt and interest payments, African countries south of the Sahara pay a combined $U.S. 30 million per day. As a result, governments in developing countries are forced to spend more money on loan repayments than on health care, education and combating poverty.

Such imbalances are what inspired the British economist Noreena Hertz to write the recently published The Debt Threat and Why We Must Defuse It (Fourth Estate, ISBN 000717960-X), a probing appeal to the West to cancel the debts of developing countries. The Guardian (October 30, 2004) suggests that Hertz is “pushing at an open door” as increasing numbers of distinguished economists (Jagdish Baghwati, Paul Krugman) and politicians (British finance minister Gordon Brown) appear prepared to support this view. Nonetheless, Hertz presents convincing arguments in favor of giving the issue higher priority on the political agenda.

Meanwhile, there is another debt that receives much less publicity and an even lower ranking on the political agenda. Namely, the debt Western countries owe to developing countries due to environmental damage, plundering of raw materials and unfair trade practices. The logic behind this concept—referred to as ecological debt—is surprisingly simple: certain countries are getting richer because of damage to the environment and the social structure of other countries and it’s high time those other countries were compensated.

Oil, gold, silver, forests, biodiversity, indigenous plants and more—these are what rich countries are continually plundering from developing nations. Raw materials, energy sources and food are exported from South to North—from poor to rich—for prices that are often very low and fail to do justice to the ecological and social damage created by this trade. Moreover, developing countries are often used as garbage dumps for dangerous chemicals and poisons that are mainly produced by Western countries.


An “extremely powerful concept,” is how the idea of ecological debt is described by ANPED, the Northern Alliance for Sustainability—a group of activist organizations in the Northern Hemisphere—in its newsletter Northern Lights (spring/summer 2004). Powerful, because it can strengthen the position of developing countries during negotiations on sustainable development, international trade, climate change and biodiversity.

But before this can happen, the notion of ecological debt must be precisely defined, along with a method of calculating it. A report published by Belgium’s University of Ghent in September entitled Elaboration of the Concept of Ecological Debt examines the applicability of the concept to international politics. The report’s authors conclude that the concept is very suitable for discussing relations between North and South. This provides inspiration for the Belgian government, which is the only one in the world to have stated its willingness to examine whether the concept can be converted into policy.

One of the most practical calculation models is the “global foot imprint”, a method conceived in Canada that provides insight into how much of the world’s surface area a country needs to sustain its consumption of resources and energy. Using hard figures, this model repeatedly shows the extent to which wealthy countries claim a disproportionate share of the resources of the earth and oceans, at the expense of other nations. The idea is that wealthy countries that exceed their due share of world resources should pay extra in compensation, with these funds used to restore the ecological debt.

There is a clear connection between the financial debts of developing countries and the ecological debts of wealthy nations. In order to generate money to pay off their loans, developing countries must export increasing amounts of their resources, which escalates the ecological debt of wealthier importing nations. Recognizing this ecological debt can restore a greater degree of balance to the global economy.

As Northern Lights points out, the fact that certain countries are denied access to a clean environment because other countries are damaging that environment should not be tolerated. According to the researchers at Ghent University, it is crucial that further accumulation of ecological debt be curbed, for example by introducing a new human right: the right to a clean environment. That right is perhaps ultimately more important than the right of industrial countries to redeem their loans. In any case, it would restore more equality in the North-South relation.

For more information on the ecological debt of Western countries: European Network for the Recognition of the Ecological Debt, www.enredeurope.org.

For more information on the global footprint: Global Footprint Network, www.footprintnetwork.org.

For more information on developing countries’ financial debt and the need for debt relief: Jubilee, www.jubileedebtcampaign.org.uk, www.jubileeusa.org.

ENN would like to thank Ode Magazine for their permission to reprint this article.