Bernard Condon spent weeks reporting, digging through arcane records and working with academic “loan sleuths” to uncover the emerging threat to poor countries from the burden of foreign debt, much of it from the world’s biggest and unforgiving lender, China.
Condon’s investigation looked systematically at the dozen poor countries most indebted to China — including Pakistan, Kenya, Zambia, Laos and Mongolia. He found they had as much as 50 percent of their foreign loans from China, and most were devoting more than a third of government tax revenue to pay off foreign debt, forcing deep cuts to such basic services as keeping schools open, providing electricity, and paying for food and fuel.
Condon found that debt is draining the foreign currency reserves these poor countries use to pay interest on those loans, calculating that some countries have just months left before that money is gone. And perhaps most significantly, Condon found China’s reluctance to forgive debt, its extreme secrecy about how much money it has loaned and tactics to put itself at the front of the line to be paid are all working to hinder other major lenders from stepping in to help.
Condon’s investigation began with a brainstorming session last year after the financial collapse of Sri Lanka, when rioters poured into the streets, setting homes of government ministers aflame and storming the presidential palace. He noted Sri Lanka’s problems had their roots in foreign debt, much to China, and that many other poor countries could be next and actually may be in worse shape than anyone realizes because a lot of that debt is often hidden from view.
To report this complex story, Condon enlisted the help of a team of experts and academics who specialized in uncovering Chinese debt, including William & Mary professor Brad Parks, who recently found at least $385 billion of hidden and underreported Chinese debt in 88 countries. They were able to help Condon explain in understandable language the tactics China uses to maintain such secrecy and to push it to the head of the line of creditors to be paid.
Condon also packed his story with plenty of examples of how this emerging crisis is playing out in blackouts, factory shutdowns and cuts to welfare. And with the help from AP reporters Munir Ahmed in Pakistan and Noel Sichalwe in Zambia, he was able to add voices from real people dealing with the fallout.
Condon’s story, accompanied by an interactive graphic by Kevin Vineys and photos curated by photo editor Patrick Sison, published as leaders of the G7 nations were gathering for a summit at which China’s status as the world’s leading government lender was a top issue. It ranked as one of the top stories of the week, with more than 330,000 page views on APNews and a perfect 100 engagement score, with prominent display on such sites as The Washington Post, ABC News, NPR and CBS News.
For ambitious, hard-nosed reporting that resulted in a story with global impact, Condon earns Best of the Week — Second Winner.