The debt crisis and impacts on human rights; case studies from Haiti, Kenya, Egypt, Jordan, Argentina and Zimbabwe

Publish Date: 
Friday, October 8, 2021

Globally, countries are facing social, political, economic and environmental crises intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic. For low- and middle-income countries these crises have been compounded by debt burdens, constraining governments' ability to respond. This phenomenon has heightened inequality and imperiled human rights. The inability of these countries to access vaccines due to intellectual property protection for pharmaceutical corporations, privatization and vaccine nationalism has exposed and aggravated long-evolving failures of the neoliberal capitalist economic models and structures requiring a deep rethink of the practices and conditionalities of lenders including the IMF and other IFIs, which have frequently contributed to these failures.

The IMF has consistently imposed neoliberal policy reforms and structural adjustments amid debt crises rooted in global inequalities and colonial legacies as well as ongoing corporate capture of critical government decision making institutions. Even in the midst of the pandemic, as highlighted by the cases in Kenya and Argentina, these structural reforms have weakened labor rights and social protections, led to the privatization and commodification of basic necessities, undermined food sovereignty, promoted regressive taxation, and imposed austerity on the majority, leading to impoverishment, dispossession and growing inequalities, including gender inequalities facing women who bear disproportionate burdens of care and are heavily represented in informal and precarious work sectors, along with many communities. In March 2021, ESCR-Net members via the Economic Policy Working Group, issued a public statement during the IMF/WB Spring Meetings with a raft of demands, including a call for restructuring or total cancellation of debts for middle- and low-income countries. To demonstrate how the debt crisis is impacting negatively on states' ability to fulfil their human rights obligations and undermining enjoyment of economic and social rights, ESCR-Net members have compiled case studies from several countries that are facing social, economic and political impacts of sovereign debt burdens related to IMF responses.

Our collective demands

In March 2021, during the IMF/WB Spring Meetings, ESCR-Net members via the Economic Policy Working Group (EPWG) submitted a strong public statement of demands to the IMF in particular. In the statement members amplified the call for immediate action on debt calling on the IMF to cancel debt for low and middle-income countries, ensure the centrality of human rights in programs and plans and the need to refrain from adopting  policies that continue to deepen impoverishment and inequality. Members also called on the IMF to embrace a more democratic and responsive governance and engagement structures to allow for effective and meaningful participation. Please read the full statement here.

The statement also emphasized on the obligation of the State to fulfil, protect and promote all human rights. These include the extraterritorial obligations and prioritization of rights during negotiations and making policy decisions with institutions like the IMF that have direct impacts on citizens rights.  

Download the Case Report: English, Spanish, Arabic 

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*These case studies on the impact of debt on human rights were developed by members of Economic Policy Working Group including; Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights(EIPR), Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS) and Fundación para el Desarrollo de Políticas Sustentables (Fundeps), Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), Phenix Center, People’s Health Movement-Kenya and Mela Chiponda, an individual member of ESCR-Net.