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The Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Debt Forgiveness Initiative

In October, 1996, the World Bank and IMF reached an agreement on the first ever comprehensive debt reduction plan to enable the debtor country to pay back its loans without compromising economic growth and without building up arrears again in the future. The initiative is designed to reduce the multilateral, bilateral, and commercial debt of HlPCs over a period of about six years to a sustainable level, a level at which the country is considered able to make debt payments. This represents the current best effort by the World Bank, IMF, and most importantly, the developed country nations who play a preponderant role in the two international institutions. Thus, it is very important to look at what HIPC does and does not do.


Mexico's announcement of a unilateral moratorium on its debt repayments in 1982 was a shock to the financial community. Moreover, it galvanized citizen's groups, churches, NGOs, and others who experienced the impact of the debt crisis to step up their advocacy on debt. Partially in response to citizen concern, but mainly in response to the threat to the financial stability of commercial banks, the major creditors, commercial banks, governments (also known as bilateral creditors), and international financial institutions sought new ways to address the problem. The principal result was the Brady Plan of 1989, named for the then U.S. Secretary of the Treasury.

Through the Brady Plan of 1989, commercial banks reduced about 20 percent of the commercial debt owed by middle income debtor countries (commercial debt of Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Costa Rica, Morocco, the Philippines, and Peru was reduced by about 35 percent). In the process, the banks were supported by guarantees from governments and international financial institutions, in effect shifting the credit risk from commercial to bilateral creditors.

Bilateral Creditors

The bilateral creditors fall into two categories: Paris Club and non-Paris Club. The Paris Club is primarily the group of wealthy donor nations which also belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The non-Paris Club major donors include Eastern Europe, the former Soviet bloc (with the exception of Russia, a new member of the Paris Club since 1997), and the Arab states.

Bilateral creditors were the first to provide debt relief in the early 1980s. Today, the Paris Club provides qualifying countries with some reduction or rescheduling of debt. The criteria are strict, but if a country qualifies, it can get a 67 percent reduction of a portion of its outstanding debt, up to 80 percent under the Heavily Indebted Poor Country Initiative. The portion of the debt eligible for reduction is that which:

  • has not previously been rescheduled
  • is not concessional
  • was incurred prior to the cut-off date; the date when the country first requested assistance from the Paris Club. For most countries, the cut-off date is in the early 1980s. The debt incurred since then is ineligible for relief. Often, the net result is that debt relief is insignificant. (Note: non-Paris Club donor nations have on occasion provided relief on Paris Club terms.)

International Financial Institutions

The international financial institutions include the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), and regional development banks. They are governed by member nations, virtually every nation in the world. These institutions raise the majority of their capital on international financial markets at very favorable conditions because of their triple A rating, a rating received because their borrowing is guaranteed by all the member nations. Because the international financial institutions offer the best terms available and have been given a special role in the international financial system, they insist on preferred creditor status, which means that they must be paid back prior to other creditors. If the debtor country does not make payments on its loans on time, it is considered off track and will ordinarily not receive loans from other creditors.

Until the HIPC Initiative was approved in 1996, the international financial institutions would not allow rescheduling or cancellation of their loans, although in practice they did so by enabling countries to pay off old loans by taking out new ones at lower interest rates and longer terms.

Eligibility is limited. Not only to the world's poorest countries-- this is a good place to start-- but also and more questionably, to those countries who have implemented Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPS) approved by the World Bank and IMF.

Under the initiative, after the eligible country has established a track record of economic reform over a period of three years, the Paris Club creditors provide a 67 percent reduction in eligible debt stock. This point is called the decision point. All other creditors (non-OECD bilateral creditors and commercial banks) are supposed to provide comparable reductions.

African Woman
Photo: WFP/N. Brodeur

Equipping African women with the necessary tools to be successful farmers takes resources. A large share of government resources of low income, highly indebted  countries are devoted to debt repayment, hindering aid to their own people.

If these actions do not result in a sustainable debt, the country moves to the second three-year stage, during which time it might get support from the international financial institutions for economic reform and poverty reduction. At the end of six years, provided the country has established an acceptable track record by implementing required economic reforms, it will receive up to 80 percent reduction in eligible Paris Club debt stock. This point is called the completion point. The second period of three years might be shortened for countries which already have a track record of strong performance.

At the completion point, the multilateral creditors provide debt relief only if all other reductions are not enough to reduce the country's debt to a sustainable level.

Shortcomings of the HIPC Initiative

Too Few Countries Eligible

There are 41 countries classified by the World Bank as HIPCs, yet only a few will get relief through the HIPC Initiative as it is currently designed. Like Paris Club debt relief, qualifying for HIPC is difficult and countries that do qualify will likely find its impact limited.

For example, Nicaragua may not qualify for relief under the HIPC Initiative because of its poor track record in carrying out structural adjustment programs. To qualify, Nicaragua would have to start an economic reform program which would likely require drastic cuts in government expenditures. Such reductions in a country still recovering from civil war and considered the second poorest country in the hemisphere would be devastating for its people, far worse than the benefits that a small amount of debt relief would bring.

Too Little Relief

Bilateral and multilateral creditors are not writing off debt, rather, they are raising money to pay for debt reduction. As a result, they want to minimize its cost. Some powerful G-7 countries, as well as some middle income countries that are unlikely to be eligible for HIPC debt relief, have not committed sufficient resources to bilateral debt relief. The IMF will provide multilateral relief only through an existing fund, the Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility. The World Bank, on the other hand, has set aside $2 billion for debt relief, an important commitment, but will release it only after bilateral creditors show their financial commitment by contributing to a separate debt relief fund.

African Woman
Photo: Lane Vanderslice

The generations meet--in support of debt forgiveness for the poorest developing countries.  U.S. citizens encircle the U.S. Treasury in protest against inadequate U.S. government debt forgiveness effort.

Inclusion of Structural Adjustment

[See the following article "How did the debt crisis come about? What is its impact for poor people?" for a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of structural adjustment]

Narrow Definition of Debt Sustainability

The HIPC Initiative is designed to restore the debtor country's ability to repay its loans. The amount of debt considered sustainable was decided by looking at what middle income Latin American countries actually paid to service their debt. The concept did not take into account the fact that many Latin American countries paid their debt at the expense of the welfare of their people, paying more than they should have. The percentage of exports that went to debt service then became the standard for what low income countries were considered able to pay.

Too Long a Wait

Eligible countries have to establish a track record of economic reform for at least three years before receiving bilateral relief and six years before receiving multilateral relief.

Connection with structural adjustment policies (SAPs): The HIPC Initiative requires countries that want debt relief to carry out SAPs. SAPs can reform economies in positive ways but can also contribute to poverty.

Arbitrary Cut-off Dates for Paris Club Relief

The cut-off date is the date the country first requests assistance from the Paris Club. Debt that builds up after this date is not eligible for reduction under the HIPC Initiative.

Indebted Poor Country Initiative

Expected HIPC Decision point and Completion Point

  • Uganda, April 1997- April 1998
  • Bolivia, September 1997- September 1998
  • Burkina Faso, September 1997- September 1999
  • Cote d'lvoire, 1997- 2000
  • Mozambique, 1997- 1999
  • Guyana, 1997- 1998

CIDSE (International Cooperation for Development and Solidarity), is a network which brings together 16 Catholic development organizations located in Europe, North America, and New Zealand. Caritas International is a network of 146 national relief, development, and social service organizations. This article is adapted from their publication, "Putting Life Before Debt."

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