The “African debt crisis” playbook – What’s the real story?

 In analysis, infographic, Social Media

Prior to and throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, civil society, governments and media outlets have issued constant warnings of a ‘African debt crisis’.

While our infographics to date have shown that these concerns are overblown for various reasons, and have been proved right so far, we thought it was worth revisiting the numbers once again, to check whether we should be adjusting our advice in any way.

Our analysis suggests that while current narratives continue to stress debt levels are reaching “unsustainable” levels, the definition of “unsustainable” is in the eye of the beholder, and therefore it is important to be cautious of accepting or using this messaging. Indeed, there is a “playbook” for presenting crises narratives which does not easily stack up, based on our analysis.

The first step in the playbook is to take a short-term view, and use absolute numbers, starting from the 2000s. This shows debt levels rising fast – implying a problem. But 2000 was around the time the “Paris Club” driven debt relief campaign – the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative started. Showing graphs from 2000 or even 2010 distorts the picture. In any case, it’s best to look at graphs that look at debt relative to economic size (debt-to-GNI) – because that accounts for inflation and can give an indication whether an economy can “carry” the debt.  If you do this, as we do, you find that most African debt-to-GNI levels are much lower than peaks in the 1990s, and overall, the African region has around 1984 levels of debt.

The second step in the playbook is to assume it doesn’t matter what loans are spent on. So, you assume a loan for vaccines or food imports will deliver the same impact on the economy as a loan for a new railway, digital infrastructure or industrial park. But this assumption is obviously patently wrong. For example, loans spent on the latter areas are more likely to produce what economists call “endogenous growth” – making people, trade and the economy overall more productive. Since 2000, many African countries have proactively sought out concessional loans from development partners – including China – to finance such projects, and this should be incorporated into the analysis of “sustainability”. Right now, it isn’t.

The third step in the playbook is to talk about the numbers of countries that are “debt distressed” or “high risk”. But this classification is highly problematic. Our infographic illustrates how. In 2019, 64 countries across the world had debt to GDP ratios over 60%, a third of whom – 21 countries – were African. However, all 12 of those who were classified as “at high risk of” or “debt distressed” in this group of 64 were African. This classification issue has worsened post-COVID. Now, 79 countries have debt to GDP ratios over 60%, 26 of whom are African. However, there are now 23 of the 79 that are classified as “at high risk of” or “debt distressed”, and again all 23 are African. Moreover, many high- and middle-income countries have developed with much higher than the 60% debt to GDP thresholds used for classification, and still sustain high ratios of over 100%. In other words, there is serious bias in this classification system, and their use should be avoided until this bias is corrected. No wonder a 2015 study found that African countries pay 2.9 per cent higher on bonds than the rest of the world!

The fourth and final step in the playbook is to present large figures on loans from China. While these are mostly factually correct, often, loans from other lenders are not mentioned. More recently, some analysts have started to present the scale of loans from the private sector lenders. However, few show how bilateral lending has changed, which also gives more context for Chinese lending.  Our infographic for the first time illustrates the comparable shifts, and it is revealing. The fact is many other bilateral lenders used to lend to African countries to similar degrees as China. They just have decided not to in recent decades. Is that responsible? We would argue it is not. African countries still need as much infrastructure today as they did – if not more – in the 1970s, given rising populations and opportunities for trade with the rest of the world.

So why does this 4-point playbook matter? And what do we advise when it comes to debt relief then? To date, since the COVID19 outbreak, 3 out of 55 African countries have defaulted on debt payments, and concerns have been raised about whether others such as Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria might do the same. Surely this is not “disinformation” or “fake news”?

Absolutely not. But based on our in-depth analysis, we would suggest that these countries have to date faced a debt liquidity crisis, not a debt solvency crisis, and they all continue to face a long-term crisis of insufficient debt for development.

Put more simply, these countries have taken at least a proportion of their loans that are too expensive, but nevertheless in “normal times” would have the potential to pay the debts. However, because their revenues were dampened due to COVID19 and its global effects, they have not been able to pay back the loans on time. Even in the case of Zambia, which has now sought and approved a bailout programme from the IMF, the world’s lender of last resort, our analysis is that the country was not necessarily insolvent, it was facing liquidity challenges. Indeed, our advice to a country in this situation would be to seek agreements from as many creditors as possible to put off payment demands for 2-3 years because of COVID19 (comprehensive “debt suspension”) and seek restructuring of as many loans as possible to accommodate these suspensions as well as to lower overall interest payments, while ensuring that as many of the existing loans are channelled as swiftly as possible into productive activity.

Why? The long-term insufficient debt problem. African countries such as Zambia, Ethiopia, Chad – still need to develop and alleviate poverty. But their economies are too small – at least on their own – to raise enough finance to do this.  This is why, as our infographic shows, African debt as a whole is a tiny fraction of global debt, or even debt owed by single G20 economies. The world can easily manage any debt suspensions, restructuring and even defaults. On the other hand, more spending in African countries can be very productive domestically and globally – it can create jobs, it can create new markets, it can allow economies to expand and trade more with each-other and the rest of the world. Cancelling a proportion of debt, bailout programmes that come with policy conditions (such as that Zambia has accepted), or even swapping existing debt for specific environmental projects, will not necessarily enable this kind of productivity because of the concequences cancellation will have on future African interest rates – driving up premiums and making repayment of future debt more expensive.

For African citizens, the most worrying crisis must be the long-term insufficient debt problem. Until there are answers to that, of course offers of debt relief and restructuring are welcome, especially those without policy conditions. But African governments should simultaneously be wary of the debt crisis playbook and keep eyes on the prize – finding ways to address the insufficient debt problem.

Our infographics below explain all.

To find out how Development Reimagined can support you, your organisation or Government to review key economic response policies to the COVID19 crisis, the Russia/Ukraine war and other shocks please email the team at

Special thanks go to Rugare Mukanganga, Jade Scarfe,  Yalelet Yihun, Jing Cai and Ivory Kairo for their work on the graphics, collecting/analysing the underlying data and sharing this accompanying article.

The data was collated from a range of sources including: government websites and media reports, IMF and World Bank data and statista. Our methodology is entirely in-house, based on analysis of economic growth, inflation and other trends.

If you spot any gaps, have any feedback or would like to follow-up on this infographic to request some further information or underlying data, please write to us at, we will aim to respond ASAP!

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Research Analyst

Edmond is a research analyst who is passionate about sustainable development, innovation, and the environment. Passionate about climate financing, he firmly believe there is a more reliable system to promote equality, growth, and welfare in societies without affecting the ecosystem. Through his skills, knowledge and experienced gained over 7 years, he wants to make an impact in the world of development. Edmond holds a Master’s Degree in Public Policy from Korea Development Institute and a BA Degree (Honors) in Business from University of Derby.


    Founder and CEO

Hannah Ryder is the Founder & CEO of Development Reimagined. A former diplomat and economist with 20 years of experience, named one of 100 most influential Africans in 2021, she is also Senior Associate for the Africa Program of the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), sits on the Board of the Environmental Defence Fund, and is a member of UAE's International Advisory Council on the New Economy. Prior to her role at DR, Ms Ryder led the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s work with China to help it scale up and improve its cooperation with other developing countries, including in Africa. She has also played various advisory roles for the UN and OECD and co-authored the seminal Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change in 2006.


Deputy Director

Leah Lynch is Deputy Director of Development Reimagined (DR), and head of the China office. Leah has over 10 years of experience in development and has lived in China for over 8 years. Leah has also travelled extensively around Asia and Africa for research. Leah supports the strategic direction of the team across China, with a mission to deliver high quality research on sustainable development and poverty reduction. Leah is also Chair of the Sustainability Forum at the British Chamber of Commerce in China, providing direction on sustainability initiatives for British and Chinese business. Leah has also consulted on various evaluations on UK aid (ICAI) and is a specialist on development cooperation from the UK and China. Leah has also consulted on various UN projects, including providing support to the UN China team during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Prior to DR, Leah was at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) China, supporting the UN’s portfolio on communication strategies, China’s South- South Cooperation and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Before UNDP, Leah lived and worked in Kenya developing sustainable water policies for the Kenyan government.


China-Africa Policy Analyst

Yike Fu is a Policy Analyst and has been responsible for leading numerous areas of work, including on debt analysis in Africa and beyond, and China-Africa trade and investment logistics and analysis. She is the co-author of “African Debt Guide”, in which she challenged the narrative that Africa is in the midst of a new debt crisis by analysing data back to the 1970s and adopting new metrics to present the real story behind the data. She also developed a benchmark to compare the financial distribution of development partners such as the UK, US, Japan, France and China in Africa. Prior to her role at DR she worked at the International Finance Corporation and African Union Representational Mission to the US. She holds a Masters in International Affairs from George Washington University.


Research Analyst

Judith is a Research and Policy Analyst, where she specialises in Africa-China relations, international development, and diplomacy. During her time at Development Reimagined, Judith has co-authored several articles published in The Diplomat on debt and China-Barbados relations and was quoted by China Daily in a piece on Women Rights in China. Previously, Judith worked as a research analyst for an Advocate and Commissioner and Oats office in Kenya.


Policy Analyst

Ovigwe specialises in geopolitics with particular reference to Africa in a changing Global Order. He is adept at critically analysing the politics of contemporary development processes and providing insight into the geopolitical interests that influence them. His work includes research, publications, tailored briefings and advising on global and regional trends, and issues at the nexus of geopolitics and development. Ovigwe appears frequently in media around the world such as Al Jazeera, TRT World, SABC, CGTN, BBC Radio, and other platforms.


Policy Analyst

Jing leads China-African health and agriculture cooperation research at Development Reimagined, having managed our FOCAC Policy Analysis and Advocacy project. She is also the co-author of “China-Africa Health Cooperation under FOCAC Umbrella”, in which she analysed China’s commitments around health cooperation since the first FOCAC summit and deepdived into four African countries’ health overview, challenges and cooperation with China as cases studies. Before DR, Jing worked at GIZ Cambodia on M&E of a disability advocacy project. She also worked as a translator with Chinese medical team in Benin.


Trade Policy Analyst

Patrick is an International Trade Policy and Trade Law Expert with over 5 years of experience. His expertise includes trade law, trade policy analysis and regional integration. He is currently engaged with Development Reimagined as a Senior Trade Analyst and was the lead author of Development Reimagined's recent Report on Africa-China Relations titled "From China-Africa to Africa- China: A Blue Print for a Green and Inclusive Continent-Wide Strategy Towards China." and “Reimaging FOCAC Going Forward.” Patrick has previously consulted for the East African Community, UNECA and for the Kenya Ministry of Trade.


Senior Policy Analyst 

Rosemary is our Senior Policy Analyst. She is a skilled policy analyst and has previously worked as a UK civil servant. She is studying Human Rights at Birkbeck, University of London with a research focus on international law in the context of health crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic.


Project Manager and Africa-China Communication Assistant

Jade is a Project Manager for Development Reimagined’s flagship project Africa Unconstrained, which focuses on financing needs and debt vulnerabilities of African countries. Her research focuses on China-Africa development finance alongside debt vulnerabilities, infrastructure needs and South-South cooperation. She has worked with a breadth of stakeholders from China, Africa and the wider international community, including governments, private sector, NGOs and civil society. Her writing has appeared in a number of publications, including The Africa Report, The China-Africa Project, The Diplomat and more. Jade holds a Master’s in China and Globalisation studies from King’s College London.


Programme Manager

Rosie is the Project Manager of Africa Reimagined (AR) at Development Reimagined (DR) where she supports high-end African brands with entering the Chinese market by operating services such as trademark protection, Chinese market research, Chinese partnership building, and Africa to China logistical support and import/export services. Rosie has worked with DR for over two years now with proven success in helping high-end African brands navigate the Chinese market. She is extremely passionate about her work because more African brands selling in the Chinese marketplace means African countries can export MORE value-added goods, create MORE jobs and foster MORE innovation in African countries.

Rosie is also alumni of the School of International Studies at Peking University in Beijing where she is also an editor at the Peking Africa Think Tank. PATT is led by a diverse group of scholars who specialise in African Studies within the context of Sino-Africa relations.



Lauren has lived in six countries from the Americas to Europe and Asia and speaks both French and Spanish proficiently. At Development Reimagined, Lauren’s research focuses on climate action both in the Asia-Pacific and in Africa, and how countries are using tools such as SDGs and Covid-19 action to build a more climate-resilient future. She holds a Masters in International Relations from Leiden University.



Etsehiwot holds a Masters’s degree in Development Studies from the London School of Economics. She has diverse experience in humanitarian and development issues by working in both multilateral organizations and international non-governmental organizations. Etsehiwot is currently a consultant focusing on the SDGs and development finance.


Economist Consultant

Dibekulu is an economist by training. He holds an MSc in International Development Studies from Palacky University Olomouc, an MSc in Development Economics from the University of Clermont Auvergne, and an MSc in Economics, Finance, and International Integration from the University of Pavia. At Development Reimagined, he works as an Economist consultant. He has strong data analysis skills, with research interests centring around development finance, impact assessment, food security, and agricultural insurance.


Project Manager

Osaru is a health professional with an MSc in Health Systems Policy and an interest in women’s health and population management. At Development Reimagined, she applies her health sector experience to global health research and collating locally applicable development insights from China.


Research Analyst

Ferdinando’s research at Development Reimagined is centred on South-South Cooperation dynamics, specifically on the analysis of Chinese investment and debt flows in Africa and their linkages to African industrialisation. He is currently a Yenching Scholar at Peking University, after having graduated from the University of Cambridge with an MPhil in Development Studies.


Research Analyst

David is a Research and data analyst at Development Reimagined. His scholarly focus is mostly on interdisciplinary research in demographic economics and development with interests in migration, economic development and policy, education, health and subjective well-being. He is currently a PhD scholar at Nelson Mandela University from which he also holds Economics and Statistics and respectively.


Research Analyst Kenya

Ivory is a Kenyan lawyer with experience in policy research and analysis. She also supports the communications team at DR. Ivory speaks English, Swahili and French.


Research And Data Analyst China 

Joy Ene is a Research and Data Analyst at DR. Joy is passionate about African/global development, poverty eradication and trade policies between underdeveloped and developing countries. She is also a fourth-year student of International Economics and Trade at the  Liaoning University, Shenyang, China. She serves as the President of the Student Union, Liaoning University, International Students chapter.


Research Analyst 

Chensi Li is a research analyst. She has previously worked for local NGOs in Nigeria and Cameroon and think-tanks in China.  Her research areas include Sino-African relations, African foreign affairs, public diplomacy, state-building and national governance.

Yixin Yu

Research Analyst 

Yixin is a Junior Research Analyst and her focus areas is on public-private partnership and entrepreneurship. She has over three years of working experience in both private and public sectors in Ethiopia. She was the China Liaison Officer for project ‘Partnership for Investment and Growth in Africa’ at International Trade Centre, where she accumulated rich experience in investment and trade promotion


Founder and CEO

Hannah Ryder is the Founder & CEO of Development Reimagined. A former diplomat and economist with 20 years of experience, named one of 100 most influential Africans in 2021, she is also Senior Associate for the Africa Program of the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), sits on the Board of the Environmental Defence Fund, and is a member of UAE's International Advisory Council on the New Economy. Prior to her role at DR, Ms Ryder led the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s work with China to help it scale up and improve its cooperation with other developing countries, including in Africa. She has also played various advisory roles for the UN and OECD and co-authored the seminal Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change in 2006.