I have been joined in the McDonalds by some very disconsolate Germans.
They were supposed to fly to Frankfurt yesterday, but their flight was canceled. So they got rescheduled onto a flight today, but that one got canceled too. The next available flight is tomorrow morning. So rather than spend yet another night at Charles de Gaulle Airport, they have decided to take a flight this evening to Berlin. How will they get from Berlin to Frankfurt? They do not know. But at least it's in Germany, okay?
Outside, temperatures have risen just over freezing. There's a wide broad expanse of snow on the tarmac just outside the window, and I can see it getting a bit slushy around the edges.
Let's talk about debt relief for the Congo.
So the Congo is getting some debt relief! This is great news. Or it should be. A lot of the Congo's debt goes back to Mobutu's time. Mobutu, being Mobutu, simply stole much of the money, and pissed the rest away on graft to his cronies and nonsense projects that ended up doing nothing for the Congolese people. But the debts are still on the books. And debt service costs the Congo more than a billion dollars a year -- almost a quarter of their annual budget.
(Of course, since about half the Congo's annual budget is paid for by donors, this gets us into some murky waters as to just who's paying for what and to whom. But let that bide.)
About three weeks ago, the Paris Club agreed to cancel about $650 million of the debt. Now the Paris and London Clubs together, in concert with the IMF and the World Bank's HIPC initiative, have reached an agreement with the Congo that will result in almost all their debt being cancelled. Good news, right?
There is, of course, a catch. The IMF and the Bank have taken this opportunity to pile on a lot of conditions. Most of these are fairly simple, basic reforms that Congo's government really should do anyway -- stuff like computerizing the Customs service, establishing a civil service system, making the Central Bank independent, like that. But that doesn't mean Congo has the capacity or the will to do them.
The early prospects are, well, not encouraging. President Kabila is up for re-election in a year and a half, so this is not really the time for him to be pushing difficult or unpopular reforms. So far, meeting the debt relief conditions has barely been mentioned publicly. Meeting the World Bank Doing Business conditions has been much discussed, but the WBDB is purely a beauty contest -- it's embarrassing that Congo is 182nd out of 183 countries, but it has no direct impact on investment, debt relief, or anything else. A sensible government with limited capacities would throw the WBDB stuff overboard and concentrate purely on meeting the debt relief conditions. So far, that doesn't seem to be happening.
I don't want to be too negative. The ink is barely dry on the debt relief deal. Things may change. As noted a few posts back, President Kabila seems to be neither malevolent nor aggressively incompetent. And there are some people around him who seem to know what they're doing.
But if Congo blows this one... well, it will be very disappointing.
Okay,flight is suppose to board in an hour. I'm going to head for the gate now.