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Biden and Kenyan President Ruto urge global leaders to help lessen developing nations’ crushing debt

By AAMER MADHANI and SEUNG MIN KIM, AAMER MADHANI and SEUNG MIN KIM, Associated Press
Published: May 23, 2024, 8:49am
3 Photos
President Joe Biden and Kenya&rsquo;s President William Ruto participate in a State Arrival Ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Washington, with the Washington Monument in the background.
President Joe Biden and Kenya’s President William Ruto participate in a State Arrival Ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Washington, with the Washington Monument in the background. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) Photo Gallery

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden is rolling out the red carpet for Kenyan President William Ruto with the first state visit to the United States by an African leader in more than 15 years.

Ruto and his wife, Rachel Ruto, arrived at the White House on Thursday morning for a pomp-filled ceremony aimed at recognizing the growing importance of the U.S.-Kenya relationship. The leaders will later hold talks and a joint news conference before a formal state dinner on the White House grounds.

They are using the three-day state visit to Washington, which began Wednesday, to call on economies around the globe to take action to reduce the enormous debt burden crushing Kenya and other developing nations.

The call to action, termed the Nairobi-Washington Vision, comes as Biden presses his appeal to African nations that the U.S. can be a better partner than economic rival China. Beijing has been deepening its investment on the continent — often with high-interest loans and other difficult financing terms.

Biden and Ruto want creditor nations to reduce financing barriers for developing nations that have been constrained by high debt burdens. They also call on international financial institutions to coordinate debt relief and support through multilateral banks and institutions providing better financing terms.

“Together we will call to the international community to come together around these elements to support high-ambition countries with high-ambition financial support,” the White House said in a fact sheet detailing the effort.

The White House also announced $250 million in grants for the International Development Association, part of the World Bank, to assist poor countries facing crises.

Separately, a $1.2 trillion government funding bill passed by Congress in March allows the U.S. to lend up to $21 billion to an International Monetary Fund Poverty Reduction and Growth Trust, which provides zero-interest loans to support low-income countries as they work to stabilize their economies, boost growth and improve debt sustainability. That funding is expected to be made available to the IMF in the coming weeks.

An Associated Press analysis of a dozen countries most indebted to China — including Pakistan, Kenya, Zambia and Laos — found the debt is consuming an ever-greater amount of tax revenue needed to keep schools open, provide electricity and pay for food and fuel.

Behind the scenes is China’s reluctance to forgive debt and its extreme secrecy about how much money it has loaned and on what terms, which has kept other major lenders from stepping in to help.

Kenya’s debt-to-GDP ratio tops 70%, with the bulk of it owed to China. Credit ratings agency Fitch estimates Kenya will spend almost one-third of its government revenues just on interest payments this year.

Ruto said Wednesday that his talks with Biden will address “how we can have a fairer international financial system where all countries are treated equally.”

Biden was also informing Congress on Thursday that he will designate Kenya a major non-NATO ally, according to the White House

The designation, while largely symbolic, reflects how Kenya has grown from a regional partner that has long cooperated with U.S. counterterrorism operations on the continent to a major global influence — even extending its reach into the Western Hemisphere. Kenya will be the first sub-Saharan African country to receive the status.

Kenya is expected to soon deploy 1,000 police officers to Haiti to help quell gang violence that has ravaged the Caribbean nation for months. The Biden administration has praised Kenya for stepping up in Haiti when so few other countries have agreed to do so. Haiti is the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation and has been mired in political instability and natural disasters for decades.

The U.S. has pledged $300 million in financial assistance for the Haiti mission, which will also include support from the Bahamas, Barbados, Benin, Chad and Bangladesh. Ruto is expected to discuss the coming mission with Biden, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and other officials during his Washington talks.

Ruto arrived in Washington on Wednesday and began his three-day state visit by meeting with Biden and tech executives from Silicon Valley and Kenya’s growing tech sector —known as the Silicon Savannah.

Administration officials said that several private sector investments are expected to be announced during the visit. The Kenyan president told the tech executives that Kenya —and Africa more broadly — have a young, innovative populace that is “hungry for opportunities.”

The White House announced it was working with Congress to make Kenya the first country in Africa to benefit from funding through the CHIPS and Science Act, a 2022 law that aims to reinvigorate the computer chip sector within the United States through tens of billions of dollars in targeted government support.

“I think we have a historic moment to explore investment opportunities between Kenya and the United States,” Ruto said.

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Biden gathered dozens of African leaders in Washington in December 2022 to make the case that the United States under his watch was “all in” on Africa’s future. He laid out billions in promised government funding and private investment on the continent in health, infrastructure, business and technology. The Democrat also promised to visit sub-Saharan Africa in 2023.

But other priorities got in the way last year, including the Israel-Hamas war and Biden’s long battle with Republicans to renew funding for Ukraine in its war with Russia. The promised visit to Africa by Biden never materialized. Biden, who faces a tough reelection battle in November, said in an exchange with reporters as Ruto arrived at the White House on Wednesday that he still plans to go to Africa.

“I plan on going in February after I’m reelected,” Biden said.

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