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Debt levels in Africa are rising despite commitments to achieve and maintain sustainable levels of public
debt. Well before the COVID-19 pandemic, global debates on debt sustainability on the continent were
gaining traction. To be sure, as of 2020, African states owe creditors USD775 billion. To put this into
context, this is about 1.4 times the size of Brazil’s debt or twice that of Indonesia. Additionally, overall
debt to GDP ratio on the continent is actually at the (relatively low) levels last seen in the early
1980s – well below the highs of the 1990s. This in fact does not signal an absence of problems, but
makes it necessary to look with a lot more nuance at specific country debt profiles. On the continent, 84%
of all debt is owed by just 16 countries, with the vast majority of African countries having external debt
ratios equivalent to less than 50% of their GDP. South Africa and Egypt alone account for over a third of
the continent’s debt.
Beyond these numbers, the situation is such that many of these countries are facing serious liquidity traps,
making it nearly impossible to generate the kind of resources necessary to address the pandemic, but
also continue to diversify and spur domestic economic transition across the continent. This foreshadows
even greater concerns regarding overall economic activity in the near future, and very difficult trade-offs
around public investment in social policies and safety nets for people.
What next then? How does the continent navigate its way out of this crisis? What do we know and have
we learned about where change can come in this intense economic, social and political crisis globally?
This series of conversations aims to answer these questions.


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