Depraved Debt Collectors

It’s time to disband the murderous Export Credit Guarantee Department

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 14th October 1999.

The dam the Turkish government plans to build across the Tigris river at Ilisu in Anatolia has two main functions. The first is to hold its neighbours Syria and Iraq to ransom. The Ilisu dam is big enough to stop the flow of the Tigris completely for two or three months, with ruinous consequences for the countries downstream. The second is an ethnic cleansing operation of precisely the kind our government contested in the Balkans. The dam will flood one of the most important centres of Kurdish culture and resistance, forcing some 20,000 Kurds from their homes.

There are several “strategic” projects like this in Turkey, but you should know about this one in particular. For the British government, ethical foreign policy and sustainable development guidelines notwithstanding, is still considering whether or not to help fund it.

If the Government does back the Ilisu dam, it will be just one of a score of macabre schemes underwritten by a shadowy and secretive government agency called the Export Credit Guarantee Department. Tomorrow is the deadline for submissions to the Trade and Industry Committee’s inquiry into the future of this department. I humbly submit that the ECGD be closed down.

The Export Credit Guarantee Department exists to provide insurance for British companies operating abroad. If the host countries can’t or won’t pay for the goods and services these companies provide, the agency coughs up instead. It then uses its government-backed muscle to force the reluctant country to reimburse it, with interest. It is, in other words, a debt collector for British corporations.

The ECGD, like most national export credit agencies, has no legal obligation to take human rights, social justice or environmental protection into account. It is so secretive that it refuses even to give a full list of the projects it has supported to parliament. The Advisory Council overseeing its investments is stuffed with directors of the companies it insures. The result of arrangements like this is that export credit has now overtaken lending by multilateral banks as the biggest threat to sustainability and social justice on earth.

The Ilisu dam is supposed to be an electricity generating project, but the money would be far better spent on upgrading Turkey’s notoriously inefficient transmission system. It will drown one of the richest archaeological regions on earth, including the ancient city seen by the Kurds as their cultural tabernacle. To prepare for its construction, police and soldiers have been burning villages and forcibly evicting their inhabitants. Questioning the need for the dam is a criminal offence. Syria and Iraq are already rumbling about the diplomatic consequences of blocking the river. The British firm Balfour Beatty wants the ECGD to provide it with £200 million of cover, so that it can start work on this illustrious project as soon as possible.

No one will be surprised if the department agrees. It is already backing two nuclear power plants in China, which will provide energy at three or four times the cost of power from sustainable sources. It has underwritten India’s Nathpa Dam, which turns out, as predicted, to be totally useless. It has insured British Aerospace’s sales of 40 Hawk aircraft to Indonesia.

The ECGD is responsible for 95 per cent of the debt owed by southern countries to the British government. It pursues its money with ruthless determination, even when the debts were incurred for projects crawling with corporate corruption. As the thinktank Cornerhouse has documented, the agency’s activities conflict with the public policies of at least three government departments.

The Export Credit Guarantee Department argues that its services are indispensable, as the private sector won’t underwrite the schemes it supports. One can’t help wondering why not. There’s no shortage of private money: indeed the British Government, citing a shortage of public funds, has been requesting private backing for its projects, under the lamentable Private Finance Initiative. Could it be that business won’t underwrite the schemes the ECGD supports abroad because it knows that many of them are roaring white elephants?

For years, campaigners have been calling for reform of this agency, arguing that it should apply ethical criteria to its loans. But it seems to me that export credit is by its very nature both corrupt and corrupting. There is no acceptable future for the ECGD. It must be destroyed.