Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Mottley called on the international finance system to relieve and suspend crushing national debts and unlock trillions of dollars in new financing to help countries navigate and overcome multiple overlapping crises in a speech Thursday during the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).
Mottley criticized the unfair interest rates and financial blockades imposed on developing countries and called on multilateral finance institutions, banks, and lending countries to restructure debt repayment programs in response to the climate, hunger, energy, and poverty crises.
She invoked historical examples of debt relief to show that the same approach can and should be taken today, especially if humanity wants any hope of accomplishing the UN’s Global Goals.
“When disaster strikes, there is a moment when the world rallies, grants and concessionary funds flow,” said Mottley. “Yet we know that a dollar spent on building resilience before, saves seven or eight dollars, and many lives, later.
“So it makes sense to offer limited access to concessionary finance for climate-vulnerable countries so they can adapt and build resilience and sustainability,” she said.
Mottley said that Barbados in particular would have access to 18% of its national income to fight disasters if it wasn’t tied up in existing debt repayment. Rather than paying back banks and countries that can afford to wait, the money could instead be used to ease poverty in Barbados, help communities adapt to climate change, fund the transition to renewable energy, and bolster its public health system, she explained.
Barbados, like many island nations, has contributed very little to climate change, is uniquely vulnerable to climate impacts such as rising sea levels and extreme storms, and lacks the resources to effectively mitigate its risks and adapt to the changing environmental conditions.
Over the past seven years, extreme storms have economically impacted Caribbean Island states six times more than larger countries, according to the UN. Recovering from these escalating disasters leaves less money for basic government services and poverty reduction measures.
The prime minister highlighted the unique role that the International Monetary Fund’s Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) can play in unlocking finance for developing countries. SDRs are a special source of funding that the IMF taps during periods of financial instability. During the COVID-19 pandemic, $650 billion was disbursed through SDRs.
However, this financial scheme is structured in a regressive way — rather than going to the countries that need funding the most, they mostly go to wealthy countries that then sit on the funds indefinitely.
Alongside partners and other advocates, Global Citizen has been calling on wealthy countries to redistribute their SDRs to help low-income countries deal with the pandemic, climate change, and other challenges.
"All we are asking is that we do what we know we can do — now," Mottley said.
Mottley also urged lenders worldwide to incorporate “national disaster and pandemic clauses” in debt packages to provide temporary relief in emergencies, so that all available funds can be allocated to overcoming the crisis.
In recent years, Mottley has emerged as one of the most eloquent, impassioned, and ingenious advocates for a new global order that would address the inequities of the past and present and establish a new foundation for global fairness and flourishing.
While she’s an advocate for reparations, the measures she called for in her UN speech wouldn't burden wealthy countries with colonial pasts; they would simply allow developing countries to have access to their money and get a fair slice of the international financing pie.
On Friday, she explored this topic further and railed against inequities in a speech for an inaugural lecture series hosted by the Kofi Annan Foundation, Open Society Foundations, and International Crisis Group.
"Trust is not created when countries pledge $100 billion per annum for climate finance and then deliver a fraction to developing countries," she said. "Or commit to 0.7% of GDP as ODA, but we don't see it or get it; when the countries that stop others from exploiting newfound fossil fuels are historically the world’s largest producers and polluters.
"From the embers of the COVID and climate crises, from the inadequacies and failings of the existing international system, from the desire of the global family for inclusion," she said. "From the need for capital investment, health care systems and technological access, which put people at the center of development, we are now challenged to look at what we have so far built, to consider what is and to craft what must be."
Mottley's speech at UNGA on Thursday invoked the visionary poets Rumi and Derek Walcott, as she urged world leaders to wipe away their biases to clearly see the status quo and choose a better future.
“These few things will change the color of money, will bypass the country-versus-country deadlock, will build a new and real internationalism for all, rich and poor, North and South, East and West,” she said.
“So, who dares write their names on history’s page?”
Mottley echoed these sentiments in a speech at Global Citizen Festival: NYC in Central Park on Saturday, Sept. 24.
She brought up recent examples of poor nations paying the price of wealthier nations' actions, such as the flooding in Pakistan, as well as Hurricane Fiona's impacts on Puerto Rico, Guadeloupe, Turks and Caicos Islands, and Bermuda.
"My friends, this is proof that the climate crisis is real and it is — yes — manmade," Mottley said to the crowd of 60,000 Global Citizens and more watching from home. "We have to convince world leaders to take action to help the countries that need it most. I said last year that this is a death sentence for us. And the crises are only going to multiply.
"So I stand here today speaking directly to the leaders of wealthy nations, but through you, because you have the power."
Editor's note: This story was updated on Sept. 24 to include Mottley's comments at Global Citizen Festival: NYC.
Global Citizen Festival is calling on world leaders, corporations, and philanthropists to do more than they’ve ever done before to End Extreme Poverty NOW. Through our global campaign and with stages in two iconic locations — NYC’s Central Park and Accra’s Black Star Square — we will unite leaders, artists, activists, and Global Citizens around the world on Sept. 24 to achieve an ambitious policy agenda focused on empowering girls and women, taking climate action, breaking systemic barriers, and lifting up activists and advocates. Wherever you are in the world, you can join the campaign and take action right now by downloading the Global Citizen app.