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Why the Debt Trap Narrative Won’t Die Soon (or Ever)


Recent reports of the debt trap’s death might have been exaggerated. Like a vampire that just won’t die, we keep burying it, but it keeps rising from the coffin.
This week we saw reports that Kenyan politicians had to clarify again that the Mombasa port itself hasn’t been put up as collateral for Kenya’s ruinous Standard Gauge Railway loans. Instead, the Port company’s profits might be garnished – a distinction that (again) failed to find an audience.
So why won’t the debt trap die? One reason might be that it falls into that netherworld of narratives that aren’t true, but somehow feel true to some. There it’s shoulder to shoulder with QAnon stories, anti-vaxxer stories, and other greatest hits of disinformation.
But why does it (rather than a different narrative) feel so true? While the greatest champions of the debt trap narrative have been Trump administration officials, the narrative’s Indian origins strike me as important, in that they reveal the kind of paranoia that nestles in Global South realities.
Specifically, it reveals a yawning trust gap between citizens and politicians. This contains a variant of the kind of cynicism and paranoia about state power that characterized the American left in the wake of the Watergate scandal (visible in 1970s movies like All the Presidents’ Men and Three Days of the Condor.) This suspicion has become a standard tenet in contemporary rightwing US politics, with its obsession about the ‘deep state.’
The Global South variant of this paranoia assumes that while politicians are sinister, mendacious and powerful, they are also massively incompetent, or so perversely self-interested that they’re willing to sacrifice the most basic foundations of statehood (like a country’s sovereignty over its ports, or a functioning electricity grid) to enrich themselves.
The distinction between incompetence and corruption becomes very blurry, and that’s the space where conspiracy theories like the debt trap narrative start making sense. Yesterday I listened to a spokesperson of South Africa’s troubled electricity utility, Eskom, calmly saying that the company has managed to expand routine maintenance to 12% of all its substations (from 8% the previous year). Eskom routinely breaks even the laxest pollution laws, and the health impacts from its pollution are estimated to cost South Africa $2.2 billion per year in workdays lost to hospital visits. Several thousand South Africans die of respiratory illnesses directly linked to Eskom plants per year.
Eskom isn’t only an ecological scandal, it’s also massively corrupt. A recent investigatory committee recommended more than 5,000 disciplinary hearings against staff members for corruption. This goes on year in and year out, accompanied by a constant chorus of unhappy citizens complaining about the pollution and the constant power cuts, but nothing ever changes.
This blurry area between incompetence, corruption and outright evil is where many Africans live. It makes it easy to see why conspiracy narratives like the debt trap are so difficult to kill. No matter how many rebuttals are published by professors in the Global North, something about the scenario of local politicians selling off the local port to outside interests just feels right.
This means that the Chinese had better get ready for more debt trap stories, and we’ll still be here pointing out the bogusness of those stories for many years to come. Until African politicians overcome the trust gap, this narrative will remain powerful.
So that will be roughly until (checks watch) the end of time. Because if Eskom taught me anything, it’s that this nonsense can drag on and on and on. And as someone who grew up in Africa, I spent my whole life learning from situations like Eskom. So, to my compatriots in Kenya worried about the port being taken over – I disagree with you, but I feel you.

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