We Owe An Immense Debt: Climate Reparations for the Global South

 /  Jan. 26, 2021, 12:56 p.m.

A woman in northern Kenya collects water.

The race to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, mitigate the effects of climate change, and secure common prosperity is the most significant challenge of this century. The rise in greenhouse gases is gradually warming the Earth’s atmosphere. Climate change has produced more costly and devastating natural disasters, from wildfires and floods to species extinction and extreme weather. The frequency and intensity of natural disasters is expected to increase and have the worst effects on the formerly colonized, developing nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America—nations where a myriad of ecological effects threaten food ecosystems, and where geopolitical quarrels over limited natural resources, paired with the specific challenges of postcolonial state-building, pose significant threats to stability and development. 

A grim prediction hovers over the Global South that the effects of climate change will compound with underdevelopment and poverty, making the region a breeding ground for mass migration events, armed conflicts, food insecurity, and civil unrest. The exploitation of the Global South at the hands of wealthier, core nations has left developing nations unequipped to meet the challenges they are presented with. The reality of climate change and the legacy of capitalist exploitation in the Global South suggests that nothing short of reparative and redistributive policies, as well as a restructuring of the global economic order, will give the developing nations of the Global South a fighting chance against the devastating effects of climate change. 

Among scientists and diplomats, fear and anxiety are common as their nations experience changes in their level of food security, face lack of access to climate finance for adaptation and repair, and grapple with reductions in their national revenues given that oil and other raw materials are declining in value on the global market. During last year’s UN General Assembly Economic and Financial Committee meeting, delegates representing a diversity of developing nations clamored about the real challenges their governments face amidst the escalating effects of climate change. Delegate after delegate described their state’s dilemmas and urged Member States to meet their mitigation goals. Multiple delegates, including Ambassador Martha Pobee of Ghana and Ambassador Collen Kelapile of Botswana, expressed concerns around food insecurity, which comes as no surprise given that many communities in the Global South lean on small-scale agriculture to feed their families and earn an income. Extreme weather events—including droughts and flooding—adversely affect crop yield and crop nutrient content, significantly impacting the survival and stability of communities dependent on consistent crop yields and nutrient-rich staple crops.

In addition to agricultural production, delegates expressed concern about their ability to finance climate adaptation and repair projects, especially in the wake of natural hazards with heavy economic impacts. Zonal insurance systems and loans arranged by international financial institutions have been unreliable and deficient funding schemes for projects of adaptation and repair, as seen in the cases of Dominica after Hurricane Maria in 2017 and Mozambique following Cyclone Idai in 2019. The Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility, a multi-country risk pool formed under the leadership of the World Bank, paid Dominica a meager $19.3 million, meeting only 1.5 percent of the commonwealth’s demonstrated need. In the case of Mozambique, one of the poorest and most underdeveloped nations in the world, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved a no-interest loan but denied the government’s request to receive relief on their existing loans. Though most developed countries have expressed commitments to aid the Global South as developing nations combat the effects of climate change, the extent and condition of aid have yet to be made clear, and there are no penalties in place for lack of follow-through. A lack of equitable financing systems for climate adaptation, mitigation, and damage repair leaves developing nations with few effective options when it comes to addressing climate change. 

Unease around food insecurity and climate finance was common among UN delegates at last year’s Economic and Financial Committee meeting, but the most enduring concern was around the ongoing task of poverty alleviation. According to the World Bank, the most significant challenges to poverty alleviation efforts are conflict, climate change, and COVID-19. It is important to note that the World Bank, an organization that has not been a good-faith partner to the Global South, conveniently omits the debt burden and economic pressure they apply on developing nations. However, given that already more than 40 percent of the global poor live in conflict-affected countries, that viral outbreaks will be more frequent and contagious in the era of climate change, and that conflicts are likely to arise as natural resources dwindle, projects of poverty alleviation and inequality reduction will require even more resources and institutional shifts to effectively lift families out of poverty. 

As poverty rates increase, governments will have to make critical investments in their country’s working class and consider new approaches to development. Necessary increases in public spending are complicated by a lack of economic growth, burdensome debt obligations, and declining national revenues among other factors, some niche and varying in duration. In the case of Nigeria, the nation relies on revenues from exporting oil for almost half of its federal budget, and oil price contractions related to the coronavirus pandemic and the chronic decline of oil demand is forcing the Buhari administration to cut funding for critical health and education programs. Many governments across the Global South have made similar cuts even though the challenges of climate change have yet to reach their height.

A number of policies and practices, many of them devised and implemented by international finance organizations like the International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization, have left nations in the Global South wholly unprepared to balance national goals of development and prosperity with the urgent demands of climate change to mitigate emissions, adapt infrastructure and national economies, and prepare to finance recovery when necessary. One such example is the World Bank and IMF’s development finance system, specifically their practice of including an overwhelming number of different conditions to aid and loan agreements arranged with developing countries. The organizations not only specify what the aid can be used for. but also include conditions that work against the interest of the national economy and the working classes of developing nations. Aid packages have required governments to liberalize trade, remove protections on domestic industries, and privatize social services. These are conditions that often deepen poverty, frustrate domestic trade, and restrict the economic decisions developing nations can make. Developing nations can stretch themselves thin to meet an average of sixty-seven conditions per loan, taking on new debts, just to send that money straight out of their economy to consultants and contractors based in the Global North. The reality is that foreign aid arrangements are grossly inadequate in meeting the basic needs of development and cannot be the framework through which developing nations tackle the tough and costly work of addressing the needs of a future defined by climate change. In fact, the specific historical effects these financial organizations and their core governments have had on the Global South suggests a new, more reparative approach to the financing of development and adaptation in the Global South is in order.

The political and economic condition of the Global South is the result of a brutal history of exploitation and domination at the hands of imperialist powers and transnational corporations. The material conditions that position the Global South to bear the brunt of climate change’s effects are not accidental or isolated—they are a direct and lasting end product of projects of imperialism, neocolonialism, and globalization. These projects and their devices have siphoned wealth, economic latitude, and political agency from the governments and people of peripheral countries to the pockets of governments and profiteers in wealthy core countries. The legacy of colonialism and the ongoing devices of neocolonialism show that the accumulated wealth and grandeur of the West is built on the backs of dispossessed and working people in the Global South and in the case of settler-colonial empires, on the land of displaced native peoples. As Franz Fanon, a French West-Indian psychiatrist and Marxist political theorist, put it, “the wealth of the imperialist nations is also our wealth.” Developed nations in the West that have engorged their empires with the wealth of Africa, Latin America, and Asia must begin to return that wealth. They owe the Global South reparations and technical support in their endeavors to survive the climate crisis and meet the growing needs of their people. 

Recognizing the urgency and significance of the issues facing developing nations, Western governments and financial institutions should immediately cancel the outstanding debts of developing nations, or indefinitely suspend repayment. In addition to debt cancellation, Western governments should redirect fossil fuel subsidy funds and institute extraction and emissions taxes to fund transitions to renewable energy and mitigation projects in the Global South. These policies could potentially raise trillions of dollars and make critical funds available for governments to ready their nations for the challenges ahead.

Additionally, the governments of the world must change how they approach economic problems. The solution to global poverty can no longer be growth—it must be redistribution. The rules of the global economy must be revised to allow for developing countries to receive an equitable distribution of the wealth they help create. We must recognize that the problems we face are not ones of scarcity but of unconscionable concentrations of global wealth. The international community can eradicate poverty across the globe by targeting accumulated wealth and implementing schemes for direct payments that guarantee a relative global minimum income. As a means to ensure that taxes on profit and wealth end up in the right places, policies targeting unlawful financial flows, tax havens, and tax evasion must be drawn up, implemented, and aggressively enforced. 

Lastly, the World Bank, World Trade Organization, and the IMF must be restructured to uplift and center the voices of developing countries facing the most economic strain. Countries that export the same products or have similar regional interests should be able to collectively bargain for fairer, more equitable trade arrangements. Developing nations lose hundreds of billions of dollars a year in export revenues because of unfair trade deals. Adopting policies of reparation, redistribution, and democratization create pathways for a future marked by common prosperity and collaboration despite climate change.

Short of revolution, the realization of these positions no doubt requires intense, unrelenting advocacy from the leaders of developing nations; but it also requires the help of mass movements in wealthy core nations—especially those in Europe and the Americas. As the movement for climate action and a new economic order gain momentum across the world, organizations on the frontlines cannot forget the specific challenges faced by developing nations as nations deal with growing food insecurity, limited access to crucial funds, and persistent, widespread poverty. The United Kingdom, France, Germany, and the United States, among other governments, are implicated in the exploitation of the Global South and included in any policy of mitigation and readjustment must be policies for reparations and the systematic redistribution of wealth to developing nations in the Global South. The condition of the world as the human race faces climate change—the degree of suffering and dispossession—depends on our abilities to share more of what we all have had a hand in producing, religiously center the needs of the most marginalized among us, and push our governments to secure a decent quality of life for the masses of the world.

This image is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution License, which can be found here. No changes were made to the original image, which is attributed to Marisol Grandon/Department for International Development and can be found here.

Tyler Okeke


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