The China Debt Question

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on May 20, 2018

There has been clear concern voiced over the sustainability of Kenya’s fiscal path over the past five years. Total debt has risen from KES 1.7 trillion in 2013 to about 4 trillion in 2017. The good news is that there seems to be indication that plans for fiscal consolidation are underway, although these will only be confirmed when the 2018/19 Budget is read.

Embedded in concerns with Kenya’s fiscal path, is a narrative that raises red flags on Chinese debt. If you look at the accrual of public debt owed to China, this stood at 63 billion in 2013 and rose to 479 billion in 2017; China owns about 66 percent of Kenya’s bilateral debt. This has led to alarm about Kenya’s ‘over-exposure’ to Chinese debt. Indeed, there is an emerging commentary that argues that China is saddling Africa with unsustainable debt and seeks to use indebtedness to further its geopolitical control over the continent.

 Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping  prepare to inspect Chinese honour guards during a welcoming ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on August 19, 2013. AFP PHOTO

(source: https://www.businessdailyafrica.com/analysis/columnists/4259356-4571188-tw2sm7/index.html)

While I agree that there should be concern with debt levels, I think the ‘danger’ of Chinese debt has dubious motives. In fact it is fair to ask if all the hue and cry over debt owed to China would be as pronounced if the debt belonged to another part of the world. The focus on Kenya’s and indeed Africa’s, rising debt needs to be approached in an intellectually honest manner that demonstrates, firstly, that the appetite for debt is coming from Kenya. China is not saddling Kenya with debt, the Kenyan government wants the debt. The Kenyan government has prioritised infrastructure and gone through expansionary fiscal policy to finance this priority. Thus, it is hard to conceive that given the financing demands of infrastructure development, the government would turn down credit lines that can finance this priority.

Secondly, if you look at the portfolio of China’s debt to Kenya, it is focused on infrastructure indicating that perhaps the Kenyan government feels it has found a partner that is willing to invest in its focus on building railways, roads, electricity transmission lines, dams etc. Bear in mind that China is still a developing country with a 2017 GDP per capita of USD8,643, and ranked 75th in the world. However, the Chinese view is that despite this, it will continue to provide sizable development loans to Kenya of which almost half are concessional loans or preferential credit lines with a 2 percent interest rate and 20-year maturity period.

Image result for China Africa

(source: https://www.diplomaticourier.com/2017/04/29/africa-chinas-human-rights-concerns-dont-apply/)

The point is that, once you find a partner that seems to understand where you are coming from and supports your vision, it is likely that the partnership will grow. Further, if other parts of the world are not offering similar debt packages in terms of scale and conditions, they really are not in a position to criticise. So why do some seem surprised by burgeoning credit lines from China?

Finally, beyond debt sustainability, the core problem with rising debt is less related to from whom Kenya is getting debt, but more about how that debt is spent. The first problem is the question of the management of public finances. If debt does not end up in projects that drive growth and rather is diverted to private pockets, then the country is in serious problems. Debt only makes sense when it is economically productive and thus mismanagement of public monies comprises the ability of debt to inform economic development. Second is the issues of absorption of funds. Government at both national and county level have clear problems with absorbing development financing, and debt sits in that docket. So securing all this debt and failing to ensure it is used correctly and that the funding is absorbed in intended projects is the real problem.

It is important that the country have a sober conversation about debt, because no matter where the debt comes from, if it is mismanaged, Kenya will be in hot water regardless.

Anzetse Were is a development economist; anzetsew@gmail.com

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