The invisible hurdle at the heart of the Commonwealth Games

The way the UK pushes other Commonwealth countries into debt ensures that there isn't a flat playing field.

Ben Warrington
29 July 2014

The Commonwealth Games have gripped Scotland and beyond, as thousands flock to Glasgow or tune in to watch elite athletes compete. These Games are said to be a celebration of what the British Empire has become. Gone are the past evils of exploitation and slavery, and in its place a voluntary organisation of countries has formed, working together for the betterment of all its members. The Commonwealth organisation, backed by its Charter of values and principles, now proclaims itself as a global leader in the promotion of democracy, equality, and the rule of law.

And yet, for all that the Commonwealth supposedly stands for, when the spotlight shifts onto the issue of foreign debt it becomes clear that justice and equality still do not exist. Some of the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable countries remain in poverty due to large wholly unjust debts. These countries are not being given the opportunity to succeed because of the manipulative colonial-style lending practices of the rich.

The UK government department that protects British exporters exemplifies the current injustices. When underwriting a foreign project UK Export Finance guarantees to pay the British company if things 'go bad’ and then charge the costs to the country in question. In what is a very callous practice, even if the project does not actually benefit the host country at all, they are then left with substantial debts to the UK government. Furthermore, it seems that the negative repercussions of the project, be they economic, social, or cultural, are irrelevant as long as British companies can invest. Last year, for example, only 3% of loans from the UK underwent any sort of human rights or environmental impact assessment.

In another example of manipulating the weak, small island-states of the Commonwealth are often encouraged to take out large loans to help regenerate growth in the aftermath of a natural disaster. After the devastation of Hurricane Ivan, for example, Grenada was saddled with more debt from disaster relief loans, not grants. The UK Parliament's International Development Committee is currently recommending that even more aid from the UK should be given as loans. It contradicts the notion of fair play that, when subjected to unavoidable catastrophes, weak states are subsequently forced to submit to conditions which will hamper their economy for years to come.

Do we have the heart for change?

Global debt, and the promotion of debt justice, is often a divisive issue. Many people across the UK campaign for debt cancellation in order to allow countries to invest in vital public services, and in recognition of the injustice of the original loans. There are also those, however, who believe debts should be paid no matter what the cost to the most vulnerable in society, and that debt cancellation is a slippery slope to more reckless borrowing.

Consensus on any moral issue is difficult, yet if we focus our attention on that of performance-enhancing drugs in sports, we can see that sometimes we share a deeper sense of morality than we care to admit. There is little else in sporting circles that can generate such universal disdain. The vitriol that spilled out from all corners of society when cyclist Lance Armstrong admitted to a decade of lies was clear to see. The almost pandemic-like use of steroids in sprinting has blighted the perception of athletics for a generation.

Ask someone why they feel such a disgust of performance-enhancing drugs and, more often than not, the reply will involve variations of the phrases “fair play” and “level playing field”. We wouldn't have a sprinter starting 50 metres further back than everyone else in a 100m race. A football team wouldn’t begin a match with 3 more players than the other side. We want to see people win because of a greater ability, not because of some undeserved, unnatural advantage.

This widespread respect for equality and fair play may be most evident in the sports doping analogy, but surely we cannot pick and choose when we uphold such moral values? Should we not abhor the current debt situation, and lobby as hard as possible for a fairer planet?

Of course, the doping analogy does not conclude that inequality itself is wrong; the whole essence of competition is based on winners and losers. The world is made up of over 200 countries each with differing ideologies and philosophies, meaning naturally some will always be more successful than others. Nonetheless, the moral validity of a situation is judged by whether all countries begin from the same ‘start-line’. The notion of fair competition is effectively thrown out the window if certain countries are forcing others to begin from a disadvantageous position.

Commonwealth: time to act

The abolition of colonialism was meant to signify the end of such unequal ‘start-lines’ and the establishment of a new global system where every country had the opportunity to succeed. Analysis of the debt situation in today’s world shows that, in reality, this has not occurred. It is virtually impossible to justify some of the actions of UK Export Finance, because they certainly do not facilitate a level playing field. If we disagree with doping in sports, we must also question the legitimacy of certain forms of debt.

On top of everything else, unjust debt has a very real human cost. Many countries now spend more money on debt and interest payments than on health and education combined. The inability of governments to invest in job opportunities means unemployment levels rise, and poverty levels worsen. Unfair debts are halting development in the very places where it is most needed.

The Commonwealth views itself as a global leader in recognising the equality of states, yet some of the most heavily indebted countries in the world are within its membership. Whilst its Charter may be designed to protect the vulnerable, as long as the UK and others practice unjust lending the notion of fair play is unlikely to exist. The Commonwealth's values are nothing but words if action is not taken to redress the reality on the ground.

Glasgow’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games is the ideal opportunity to highlight and challenge the global debt slavery that is still so prevalent today. Throughout the Games, we are going to hear of the worthy values of the Commonwealth Charter. We must use this dialogue to demonstrate that the current systems of global debt are unacceptable; our morals demand a level playing field.

For more information on Jubilee Scotland and the debt of commonwealth countries, or to sign the Debt Justice Pledge, head to

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