Debt has no friends. It loves no one. And when it shows up at your front door, it shows no mercy.
In the United States, we face down debt by borrowing from friends or family, if we can, or enter bankruptcy court, where we find relief. Many of us get on with our lives, and we often manage to recover our respect, dignity and pride.
But what of poor nations who borrowed from banks fat with OPEC deposits in the '70s in order to pay high oil bills and maintain rates of economic growth that were already behind those of rich nations.
In 1979, when oil prices skyrocketed again, as did international interest rates, those same countries found themselves owing millions upon millions of dollars in interest they never anticipated.
They live under a shadow of indebtedness they cannot afford, in a system without bankruptcy courts, or family and friends willing to lend them more money.
What can they do to satisfy the demands of nations and institutions that want the loans repaid? Where can they go to find relief and to recover their dignity?
One answer floating about is to relieve the debt of the world's poorest countries - to cancel it.
Jubilee 2000, an international movement, drew thousands to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., yesterday to rally for erasing the approximately $350 billion Third World debt. In addition to the United States, national campaigns to forgive the debt are under way in England, Scotland, Canada, the Philippines, Australia, Ireland, Austria, Germany, Sweden and South Africa.
Even the conservative bankers at the World Bank recognize the enormous economic costs associated with debt in poor countries. According to the World Bank's 1994-95 World Debt Tables, "without debt reduction, the debt will be perpetuated, domestic and foreign investment discouraged, and capital flight invited."
And, while Jubilee 2000 believes that "canceling the crushing debt burden of poor countries is a matter of justice and compassion," it wants you to know that forgiving the debt also serves the self-interests of people in rich countries, who are affected by economic, social and environmental problems in poor countries.
Indebtedness increases the availability of illegal drugs, as poor countries increase production of coca while decreasing production of food products. Coca reaps far more money in the international marketplace, money that poor people need just to survive. Ongoing poverty means less money available to purchase goods and services from the West. Indebtedness also is linked to deforestation, illegal immigration, the spread of communicable diseases and political instability.
This need not be. Forgiving the debt comes cheap. According to two studies published by Oxfam International, using calculations supplied by UNICEF, for just $4 per year, spread over the next 20 years, each citizen of the industrialized nations can contribute to saving the lives of 1.3 million children in Ethiopia, nearly 600,000 children in Mozambique, another 475,000 children in Niger. For that $4 a year, nearly 21 million children's lives may be saved in all sub-Saharan Africa.
Nearly half of all Africans live on less than what we pay for cable television. In one year, what Europeans spend on ice cream could provide primary education, clean water and sanitation for tens of millions of Africans without these basic services. In sub-Saharan Africa, more is spent to repay debt than total expenditures for social programs, yet three out of four people live in poverty and one in four children suffers from malnutrition. The same is true in countries in Latin America, Asia and the Middle East.
Jubilee 2000 calls for definitive cancellation of international debt in situations where countries burdened with high levels of human need and environmental distress are unable to meet the basic needs of their people. It calls for debt forgiveness that benefits ordinary people, and does not go into the pockets of the corrupt. It calls for debt forgiveness that is not conditioned on reforms that deepen poverty or degrade the environment. And it calls for a process that requires mechanisms to monitor international monetary flows and prevents recurring indebtedness.
Forgiving the debt will not eliminate Third World poverty, but it is a necessary first step. Can we afford $4 a year over the next 20 years? Jubilee 2000 and an increasing number of world leaders argue that we cannot afford not to pay that $4 a year over the next 20 years, if our global community is to have even the slightest chance to succeed.
Lewis Green is a local writer and social-justice activist who attended the Jubilee 2000 rally this past weekend in Washington, D.C. He is an associate with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace and a member of the Intercommunity Peace and Justice Center and the Intercommunity Ministry Volunteer Program in Seattle.
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