Ecological Debt Versus Financial Debt In The African Context

What Type Of Justice Is Required?

By Dr. Thierry Ngosso (University of St. Gallen)

September 13, 2016         Picture: George Esiri/Reuters.

This article is part of The Critique’s September/October 2016 Issue “The Bright Continent: Illuminating The Challenges, Opportunities & Promises Of A Rising Africa”.

I. Introduction

The concept of ecological debt emerged in the Southern social movements as an argument against financial debt, in the context of the 1990s era discussion of the issue of the external debt of developing countries. By focusing on the exploitation and plundering of resources of developing countries by Western countries and companies that have pulled in a significant economic benefit[1], the goal of Latin American NGOs was to denounce the heaviness of the external financial debt of developing countries and to simply call for its complete cancellation due to the fact that Western countries and companies were truly ecological debtors vis-à-vis developing countries. This position was echoed by some scholars like Martinez Alier, one of the prominent defenders of the notion of ecological debt, who claims that the ecological debt of Western countries towards poor countries is far more important than the financial debt of poor countries towards Westerns ones, though this ecological debt is hard to quantify in monetary terms since it cannot be traced back to historic debts due to centuries of exploitation and colonization of the South by the West[2].

Though it originated in Latin America, the debate about ecological and financial debt is also relevant for African countries. In fact, statistics of international organizations, as well as experts’ research, show that most African countries, especially sub-Saharan countries, are still very poor fifty years after the end of colonization and after extensive though unsuccessful aid programs[3]. There are certainly many reasons that explain this situation. One of it comes from the fact that the financial debt partly contracted during the colonization period continues to stand as a key obstacle that undermines the effort of African countries towards economic development. It stands as a huge burden that prevents most African countries from actually emerging and enjoying their right to development and to promote their respective populations’ well-being. Due to high interest rates for the repayment of these debts, some African countries have devoted and continue to devote a significant part of their financial resources and/or GDP to reimburse their financial debt. In some circumstances, they even contract other debts in order to reimburse some of their current debts. And even when some international programs like the HIPC initiative aiming at a substantial reduction of their sovereign debt are set up, some vulture funds take advantage of this apparent solvency to undermine and make more precarious the efforts of these countries to develop economically[4]. When not cancelled, the sovereign debt of African countries prevents them from rising economically. When it is partially cancelled, it leads to an air appeal that worsens their fragile economic situation.

Besides the ongoing issue of economic development, there are new challenges which confront African countries in a stronger and more urgent way. Among them, there is the challenge related to intergenerational justice and specifically to the protection of nature. We are in a period where the global consciousness about environmental protection and the reduction of pollution is increasingly higher as we observed with the Climate Conference of Paris last year. The fight against global warming may be harder for African countries, not only because they are so poor today, but also because some potential levers for their development, including natural resources, must be phased out in favor of sophisticated technologies for which they have neither the financial resources nor the technical skills. African countries are not only under the pressure of realizing their economic development hampered by issues related to their financial debt, but also under pressure to adopting ecological-friendly policies that will reduce their dependence on natural resources.

It is in such a context that the idea of ecological debt may make sense. Taking into consideration the global consciousness for environmental protection, as well as the precarious and vulnerable situation of African countries due to the heavy burden of their financial and colonial debt, my goal in this article is to explore what kind of justice we need in order to solve these issues. I argue that the very notion of ecological debt pleads for a complete cancellation of the financial and colonial debt of African countries under a distributive approach of justice rather than a compensatory or a corrective approach. My analysis will be completed by exploring three questions. First, can we say that ecological and economic damages have been committed as implied by the notion of ecological debt? Second, if there are any connections between ecological and colonial financial debt, which connection is actually relevant? Finally, what type of justice do we need to solve the problems raised by ecological debt, as well as by its implications for financial colonial debts of African countries?


II. Is it clear whether African Countries have suffered from economic and ecological damages from the West?

For those who call for a complete cancellation of the financial debts inherited from colonization by most African countries, the idea of ecological debts stands as a powerful argument against maintaining the currently existing financial debts although one debt is contractual (financial debt) while the other is not (ecological debt). Proponents of this idea simply affirm that we should completely cancel the financial debt of African countries (and other colonized countries) because their financial creditors are also ecological debtors. According to them, there are two sources of this ecological debt. On the one hand, there are natural resources located in African countries and hence “belonging” to these countries that have been and are currently looted by Western countries and companies. Among others, the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo with one of the richest reserves in terms of natural resources currently exploited by Westerns companies is paradigmatic of the ecological indebtedness of Western countries towards developing countries. On the other hand, there are collective natural resources like air or atmosphere that have been and are currently overexploited by Western countries and companies. According to experts, the ecological footprint of Western countries is far more important than that of African countries and there is no doubt today that rich countries have mostly contributed to global warming as in comparison with African countries.


“We should completely cancel the financial debt of African countries (and other colonized countries) because their financial creditors are also ecological debtors”.


If we look carefully at these two sources of ecological debt, they seem to validate the idea that developing, and especially African countries, have been victims of ecological and economic damages from Western countries. Part of these damages are detailed in both the Beijing Ministerial Declaration (1991) and the Rio Declaration on development and environment (1992)[5]. The 1991 Beijing Ministerial Declaration on Environment and Development for example states: “Ever since the Industrial Revolution, the developed countries have over-exploited the world’s natural resources through unsustainable patterns of production and consumption, causing damage to the global environment, to the detriment of the developing countries. Responsibility for the emissions of greenhouse gases should be viewed both in historical and cumulative terms, and in terms of current emissions. On the basis of the concept of equity, those developed countries who have contaminated most must contribute more”[6].

Even though both declarations (Beijing and Rio) confirm the existence of ecological and economic damages, many scholars still disagree on this. On the one side, some interpretation of the work of the economic historian Paul Bairoch[7], and more recently of William Easterly and Ross Levine in “Tropics, Germs, and Crops: How Endowments Influence Economic Development”[8] show that even if there was environmental damage in the past centuries due to the exploitation of natural resources, Western countries and companies have not benefited so much and the failure of the development of African countries cannot be explained by the exploitation of natural resources by the West. They argue that natural resources, far from being determinant to the economic development of a country, can also become a “curse” because they affect the institutions. The argument of the resource curse is highly present among economic scholars. The simple presence of important natural resources is not a guarantee of successful economic development. That is why for Mehlum Halvor, Karl Moene and Ragnar Torvik (2006)[9] the only way to understand why countries such as the DRC, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Saudi Arabia and Angola, very rich in natural resources, are far poorer than countries such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong or Singapore (which in turn are extremely poor in natural resources), is to accept that nations rich in natural resources have a different fate depending on whether their political institutions use or redistribute resource rents for those who produce wealth or in favor of what they call unproductive grabbers. In countries like Nigeria or the DRC, the state is simply not democratic and unfair. And that is why, even though they are rich in natural resources, economic and human development is less important than in Japan or Hong Kong. This approach is also shared by economists such as Humphreys, Sachs and Stiglitz[10] who emphasize the political foundations of the paradox of plenty[11].

On the other side, some interpretations such as the ones by Schokkaert, E. & J. Eyckmans’ work[12], as well as by Axel Gosseries[13], show a correlation between historic emissions and economic advantage. Gosseries acknowledges both that previous generations are not morally responsible for the harm their pollution caused and that their descendants are not morally responsible for the harm the pollution that these previous generations caused. Nevertheless, Gosseries proposed the concept of “transgenerational free-riding”. He argues that the descendants of those who polluted in the past should compensate the victims of their ancestors’ actions. If this compensation is morally relevant, it therefore highlights a significant link between what has been done in the past in terms of historic emissions or natural resources exploitation and the current state of development of Western countries. A transgenerational free-riding concept implicitly acknowledges some past economic and ecologic damages suffered by poor countries.

In conclusion, it is not clear whether African countries suffered from ecologic and economic damages by Western countries. But this difficulty can be overcome as we will see below. Let us first examine which relevant connections, if any, exist between ecological debt and financial debt.


III. Is there a relevant connection or relation between ecological debt and financial debt?

It is possible, in fact, to identify at least three ways to link the ecological debt and financial debt of African countries. All these types of relationships tend to justify the cancellation of the financial debt considered as a burden to the economies of the South, as Susan George argues very well in her book Jusqu’au cou. Enquête sur la dette du Tiers monde[14]. The first is a compensation relation. That relation explicitly appears in the discourse of advocates of ecological debt. It is said that Western countries ought to cancel the financial debt (of African countries) because the ecological debt is going the other way. There is actually a kind of crossover between the two debts. Because the ecological debt exists, it is just cancelling the financial debt (as a sort of compensation).

The second relationship is a causal relationship. This relationship, less explicit in the discourse of the defenders of the idea of ecological debt, seems yet more robust. It claims that the very existence of the ecological debt is explained by the existence of the financial and colonial debt. The ecological debt continues to rise under the pressure of financial debt. In other words, it is because African countries are required to honor their financial debt vis-à-vis their Western creditors that they are forced to sign with some Western companies contracts or grant concessions for logging or mining without proper environmental restrictions. Thus, these states are sacrificing sustainable development on the altar of economic development which requires the return of financial debt and further increases the ecological debt. Here, the argument is not promoting the cancellation of debt simply because the ecological debt exists, but rather saying that it is precisely because there is a financial debt that the existence of the ecological debt is particularly strong.

The third relationship is based on justifications. On the one hand, the argument of the ecological debt aims to stand as a better argument for the cancellation of the financial debt and thus compete with the argument of illegitimate or “odious” debt developed by Alexander Sack and reformulated in an intergenerational perspective by Gosseries[15]. According to the argument of odious debt, financial debt is illegitimate not only because it was not incurred by a democratic system, but also because it was not beneficial for the people of the states which contracted it. This is a regime’s debt, which should not be repaid by the entire population. However, the argument of ecological debt says that the financial debt of African countries is illegitimate because the regimes were forced to contract them as a process of exploitation of their natural resources that did not benefit them. Although it is obvious that some African regimes who contracted the debt in the past were corrupt, undemocratic and had little concern for the general interest of their people, it is less obvious to prove that the ecological damage that African countries have suffered have given a certain economic advantage to Western countries. The argument of the ecological debt against the financial debt of African countries seems less effective and less insightful than the odious debt’s argument.

On the other hand, it is here that linking both debts may have a disastrous outcome, calling for ecological debt in order to cancel the financial debt of African countries means taking the risk of legitimizing that financial debt. Assuming that the real debtors are in the West, the ecological debt argument also recognizes that there are also financial debtors in African countries, and therefore that the financial debt of African countries is legitimate. By legitimizing the financial debt of African countries actually recognized as illegitimate by the ‘odious debt argument’, the ecological debt concept is exposed to two risks: first, that of being countered with a valid objection against any intergenerational concept of debt that says asking the present generation to pay for an ecological debt incurred by past generations is contrary to moral individualism (everyone can only be held responsible for the acts he or she directly committed); second, as acknowledged by Martinez, the impossibility to quantify the ecological debt necessary to proceed to a compensation, which can paralyze the debate.

The advantage of connecting ecological debt and financial debt is less important than the inconveniencies it causes. We should thus disconnect ecological debt and colonial/financial debt and tackle the issues raised by this idea of ecological debt independently.


IV. What type of justice?

Several questions underlie the issue of ecological debt and the way it may implicitly interact with that of financial debt, but I will deal with only one: How do we understand the idea of ecological debt from the standpoint of justice? I mean by justice which moral obligations we owe to one another (as individuals but also through institutions) and that appeal to equality, fairness, reciprocity and keeping promises. Having said this, three approaches of justice can be mentioned here: restorative justice, corrective justice and distributive justice.

First, the notion of ecological debt can call for a restorative or compensatory justice. This approach of justice is based on historical injustice. It assumes that if harm has been committed in the past, whether someone has benefited or not from it, it must be repaired. As this type of justice is strong when it comes to intragenerational wrongdoings committed across shorter time spans, it loses effect when much time has passed as is the case with some significant aspects of the ecological debt. It faces several objections related both to time and the transmission of the obligations of justice, including a basic requirement of moral individualism holding someone morally responsible for a harm only he or she has directly committed. Restorative or compensatory justice is unable to reconcile our many different moral intuitions when they apply to questions such as the ecological debt that has inevitably an intergenerational aspect inherent to it.

Second, the notion of ecological debt can call for a corrective justice. Corrective justice is based on an unjust enrichment or intergenerational free-riding. The intergenerational free-riding concept stipulates that taking advantage of injustice, even if we are not directly or indirectly the originator, is sufficient to generate obligations of justice. This kind of justice can answer some objections (ignorance: “I did not know”, impotence: “I could not do anything”) developed against corrective justice. Although one is not directly responsible for past wrongs, the fact that one still enjoys today at least part of the growth generated by the exploitation of African natural resources is enough to generate an obligation to compensate. However, there is always a logic of compensation that will still leave pending that part of injustice which we cannot say for sure that one is responsible for. Moreover, the debate about those who really benefited from such exploitation still remains. In conclusion, if this type of justice is certainly a step forward, it remains silent on the historical aspect of ecological debt.

Finally, the notion of ecological debt can call for a distributive justice. Distributive justice here is based on inequalities inherited from the past and the arbitrariness of both the distribution of natural resources and the (geographic) birthplace of potential debtors or creditors of ecological debt. One should consider the current disparities between Western and African countries and then equitably distribute resources and benefits that both have arbitrarily inherited. This type of justice considers ecological debt as a non-contractual debt which nevertheless calls for moral obligations. These obligations are built around the Rawlsian notion of justice based on the fact that a fair redistribution should be done in the sense that it improves the most disadvantaged[16] or around a sufficientarian approach to justice where people and institutions have a moral obligation to put above the sufficiency threshold those who are not[17]. It is a way of correcting an inequity that has not been resolved in the past.

When we look at these three approaches of justice, distributive justice seems more robust, escapes the theoretical difficulties related to the first two types of justice and adjusts the issue of ecological debt beyond what might even require a simply remedial, corrective or compensatory approach of justice.



The strategy of connecting ecological debt and financial debt of African countries has counter-productive effects. However, to criticize this way of linking the two debts does not completely invalidate the most interesting insights that carry the current discourse on ecological debt, including the risks of increased inequality and environmental injustices, and a degradation of environment. Thus, if we want to escape this sort of ‘original sin’ of the concept of ecological debt, we will also understand why of the three types of justice that could be applied to the concept of ecological debt – restorative justice, compensatory justice, or distributive justice – only distributive justice escapes major objections[18]. In conclusion, the concept of ecological debt is certainly not the best argument against cancelling the financial debts of African countries. Instead, it mobilizes interesting insights to feed the thorny debate on intergenerational and environmental justice in African countries who suffer in addition from the overweight of financial debt.

Footnotes & References

[1] Aurora Donoso, « We are not debtors, we are creditors », in Bravo, E., & Yánez, I. (Eds.), No more looting and destruction! We the peoples of the south are ecological creditors. Southern Peoples Ecological Debt Creditors Alliance (SPEDCA), 2003.

[2] Alier Joan Martinez, « Dette écologique – Dette extérieure », in La dette écologique. Qui doit à qui ?, Paris, CDE/CADTM France, 2003, available at

[3] See Dambisa Moyo, Dead Aid, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009. See also Nicole Hassoun for a discussion of the limits of aid development (Nicole Hassoun, “Making the Case for Foreign Aid”, Public Affairs Quarterly 24(1), 2010, pp. 1-20; “International Theories and International Development”, Global Justice: Theory, Practice, Rhetoric, 7, 2014, pp. 12-27).

[4] Thierry Ngosso, “Trois raisons de s’opposer aux fonds vautours”, Dounia 5, June 2012, pp. 22-35.

[5] United Nations Environment Programme, “Rio Declaration on Environment and Development”, 1992, available at

[6] Cited by Schokkaert, E. & J. Eyckmans, “Greenhouse Negotiations and the Mirage of Partial Justice”, in M. Dore & T. Mount, Global Environmental Economics. Equity and the Limits to Markets, Oxford: Blackwell, 1998, (pp. 193-217), p. 205.

[7] Paul Bairoch, Economic and World History. Myths and Paradoxes, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

[8] Easterly, William and Levine, Ross, Tropics, Germs, and Crops: How Endowments Influence Economic Development (October 2002). Center for Global Development Working Paper No. 15. Available at SSRN: or

[9] Mehlum Halvor, Karl Moene and Ragnar Torvik (2006), “Institutions and the resource curse”, Economic Journal 116:508, January 2006, pp. 1-20.

[10] Marcatan Humphreys, Jeffrey D. Sachs, Joseph Stiglitz, Escaping the Resource Curse, New York, Columbia University Press, 2007.

[11] Gavin Wright, Jesse Czelusta, “The Myth of the Resource Curse”, Challenge, March-April, 2004, pp. 6-38.

[13] Axel Gosseries, “Historical Emissions and Free riding”, Ethical Perspectives 11(1), 2004, pp. 36-60.

[14] Susan George, Jusqu’au Cou. Enquête sur la dette du Tiers monde, Paris: La Découverte, 1988.

[15] Axel Gosseries, “Should They Honor The Promises of Theirs Parents’ Leaders”, Ethics and International Affairs 21(1), pp. 99-125.

[16] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Harvard: Belknap Press, 1971.

[17] Harry Frankfurt, “Equality as a Moral Ideal”, Ethics 98, 1987, pp. 21-43.

[18] Axel Gosseries, « Generations » in Catherine MacKinnon, Issues on Political Theory, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Thierry Ngosso
Thierry Ngosso
Dr. Thierry Ngosso is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Business Ethics. He holds a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Louvain (Belgium). The title of his dissertation was “Purposes and Moral Obligations of Firms” where he advocates the need to move from Business Ethics to a political philosophy of firms that connects corporate social responsibility to the idea of justice. Ngosso’s research focuses particularly on business ethics, moral philosophy and political philosophy. He is currently writing a habilitation on “Firms and Climate Responsibility” at the Institute for Business Ethics of the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland. Thierry Ngosso is also visiting professor of Moral and Political Philosophy at the Catholic University of Central Africa in Yaoundé (Cameroon) as well as visiting professor of Corporate Social Responsibility and Business Ethics at EDHEC Business School at Lille (France).

“How many newsworthy issues, which should have been the rightful domain of philosophy, have been usurped in recent years by religion, law, and psychology?”

Lee McIntyre

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