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‘Cancel my debt, I am flooded’

There is a tide in the affairs of men/ Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” So said Shakespeare, little knowing that in Pakistani English his words might be twisted to squeeze a fortune out of a flood.


There is a tide in the affairs of men/ Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” So said Shakespeare, little knowing that in Pakistani English his words might be twisted to squeeze a fortune out of a flood.

How else to explain the rising tide of calls by our leaders to have debts incurred by them cancelled because of the deluge. Their ingenuity is to be expected but what should one make of the response of many in whose names the debts have been incurred?

They too have occupied the moral high ground in lending vociferous support for reparations and debt cancellation. Consider a hypothetical scenario for perspective. Imagine a territory ruled by a murderous mafia that extorts protection money and stuffs all resisters in sacks. It borrows from abroad to control the territory and is obliged by a lender fully aware of the reality but keen to promote its own interests.

The lender also guarantees asylum to the Mafiosi if they ever get into trouble. Imagine these good times interrupted by a great flood that buries the territory. The Mafiosi blame the lender’s country for the disaster and clamour for reparations in the form of debt cancellation. Could such a stance be taken at face value? This is a hypothetical scenario but how far-fetched is it?

Hasn’t it been asserted that Karachi was once ruled by a mafia? Has the Supreme Court not described the country’s government as one? Do political leaders not call each other thieves and robbers propped up by foreign powers? In the fourth century, St Augustine asked: “What are robber gangs, except little kingdoms? If their wickedness prospers, so that they set up fixed abodes, occupy cities and subjugate whole populations, they then can take the name of kingdom with impunity.”

This notion that “the state and the criminal gang are but larger and smaller versions of the same thing”, was a recurrent strand in mediaeval thinking. Is it possible that some parts of the world haven’t advanced much since then? Once it is conceded that the bona fides of rulers clamouring for reparations as debt cancellation can be suspect, we can address issues of logic. Even if the case for reparations is conceded, why should they take the form of debt cancellation? Isn’t there a moral hazard in proceeding down that route?

What does it do to the incentive for prudent behaviour if an agent is protected against the consequences of impropriety? How would an organisation declared ‘too big-to-fail’ treat its fiduciary responsibilities? Who is to be held accountable for misuse of the debts incurred over the years in the name of those now suffering in the flood? Wouldn’t every disaster be turned into an occasion to celebrate if it wipes the slate clean and absolves past misgovernance? Flip the scenario to consider victims of the flood blaming the state for not mitigating their exposure and vulnerability despite knowing the heightened possibility of disaster.

Are they entitled to ask that their debts to banks and moneylenders be waived? How would the state react to such claims? Having argued that debt cancellation is a hazardous vehicle for reparations, even if the latter is justified, we can consider the case for reparations in its own right. Reparations, broadly understood, are compensation for consciously inflicted abuse or injury; they apply in particular to severe violations of human rights.

For example, a compelling case has been made for reparations to compensate for slavery in the US. A similar one can be made for the forcible dispossession of Native Americans. But does climate change fall in this category? Climate change is indeed the outcome of consumption patterns in Western countries over two centuries. But the consequences of such practices were not known till very recently; nor were they adopted as a deliberate attempt to inflict damage on non-Western countries.

Even otherwise, if the issue of reparations is to be raised now, why should it be confined to climate change and only the Global South be entitled to them? What should be our stance on reparations for human rights violations within the Global South? How credible are selective claims to reparations stressing just the ones where we are owed and slighting the ones we owe? Are we hoping they will escape scrutiny forever? It took over 100 years but Canada finally had to accede to reparations for separating indigenous children from their families and prohibiting the use of their native languages and cultural practices. Closer to home, can victims of floods and earthquakes claim reparations from those who have left them living in fragile dwellings? Isn’t that a violation of their right to adequate housing? And what of reparations for the millions left illiterate despite a constitutional right to education or for those barred from learning in their own languages?

There is no moral case for cancellation of debts without accountability nor justification for reparations that are one-sided. There is, however, an urgent need to address climate change. In the absence of a sustainable and fair solution, it will trigger huge human migrations — from rural to urban areas in peripheral countries and across international borders from peripheral to core countries. This will lead to stresses that political systems would find difficult to handle without social conflict. For that reason alone, the case for earmarked assistance is strong and in the interest of all countries.

A loss-and-damage assessment, with incentives to ensure adequate mitigation, should form the basis for support from rich countries to those suffering most from the impacts of climate change. Having started with Shakespeare, it is fitting to conclude with Ghalib, another literary giant. In very few words he illustrates the problem with our leaders’ plea for cancelling their debts. He says, in translation: “we used to drink wine on credit but were fully confident that / our cheerfulness in adversity will accomplish wonders one day.”