The Third World is staggering under the burden of debt. Let's lift that burden and let its people prosper. 

Jubilee Gift

The world is entering the new millennium with an unprecedented level of economic progress. Unfortunately, the Third World is being left behind as it remains mired in deplorable poverty. The problem has several causes, not the least of which is the enormous debt the Third World must repay to the International Monetary Fund and the United States and other wealthy nations. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that debtor countries struggle to make payments at the expense of their poorest and most powerless inhabitants. Furthermore, no one believes the debt will ever be repaid. The solution is simple and it saves lives.

In the Third World, debt is more than an inconvenience, it kills. Thirty thousand children die every day from hunger and hunger-related illnesses in countries that are so in debt the citizens do not have safe drinking water or basic health services. These countries spend a substantial part of their budgets merely for interest payments.

The situation in Mozambique is both dramatic and typical. Forty-five percent of the country has the potential for agricultural development. Nine major rivers cross the country. Despite the promise of self-sustainability, one in five children dies before age 5, most children do not go to primary school, and half the country does not have access to safe drinking water. This is due in part to the recent civil war. Not to be ignored, however, is the $100 million Mozambique spends annually in debt payments, or 17 percent of its annual budget.

Bolivia spends over half its income on debt relief. Meanwhile, two-thirds of its citizens live in poverty and it has one of the world's highest infant mortality rates. The typical Ugandan woman gives birth to seven children in her lifetime while Uganda spends just $3.50 per person on health and education compared to $17.00 per person on debt servicing annually. A citizen of Zambia has an average life expectancy of 37 years as the country spends four times more on debt servicing as it does on health care.

The bottom line is that debtor countries are forced to ignore their infrastructure, make hard choices between debt payments and health services, grow crops only for exportation, and destroy rain forests and other natural resources in order to provide raw materials to manufacturers in wealthier nations.

Jubilee 2000, a religious and social justice movement, is advocating an ambitious plan: Cancel the debt and put the savings into poverty reduction programs. The movement's inspiration is the Book of Leviticus which announces that every 50th year is a "jubilee year" where "ye shall return every man unto his possession." In earlier times, this was a period for freeing slaves, forgiving debts, and returning land to the original inhabitants.

Jubilee 2000 has made progress. In the past, the IMF placed tough structural requirements on debtor countries in order to secure loans and rearrange payment schedules. Those requirements are often cited as one of the causes of poverty because emphasis is placed on debt payments rather than self-sustainability. The IMF is now focusing on reducing poverty and has promised to make the debtor country a partner in designing plans to channel money saved by debt forgiveness into appropriate poverty reduction programs. In addition, the G-7 nations, of which the United States is one, have made commitments to cancel debts owed to them by Third World countries.

The Debt Relief for Poverty Reduction Act of 1999, a congressional bill, has the bipartisan support of conservative Republicans and progressive Democrats. Debts owed to the United States by Third World countries are canceled and the debtor countries are required to deposit money saved into a fund for programs aimed at poverty reduction. Private organizations that are actively involved in reducing Third World poverty would review the programs for effectiveness. Countries that spend excessively on the military, support terrorism, engage in human rights violations, or do not cooperate in efforts to reduce drug trafficking, would not be eligible for this program.

Shakespeare wrote when speaking of forgiving another debt that "the quality of mercy is not strain'd. ... it is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes." The benefits of debt forgiveness go beyond the borders of the Third World. The debtor country would not have to flood the international market with low-priced goods in order to service the debt. As the country begins to provide for itself, it becomes a market for goods from other countries, thus creating new opportunities for growth. Its citizens are less likely to emigrate and enter our labor market. Wealthier countries are less likely to have to provide emergency relief in times of environmental or health crises.

The cost of this plan is minimal. The congressional bill appropriates $970 million over the next three years. That is about equal to what the United States spent on 10 new helicopters this past year. Republican Congressman Spencer Bachus of Alabama notes that the cost per American is only $1.20 a year.

Forgiving a country's debt is not a new idea. After World War II, Germany, Japan, and England had debts canceled. Despite the war's devastation, these countries are now reaping the benefits of a growing economy. If it can happen once, it can happen again.

The time is right to lift the burden of debt, clean the slate, and elevate the Third World. Forgiving Third World debt will save lives and ensure continued economic growth. Let us hope that our leaders do not pass up this opportunity to fulfill the promise of a new era.

Christopher Dunn is a lawyer in the Richmond area. Research assistance was provided in part by the Jubilee 2000 Coalition, Bread for the World, RESULTS, and the United States Catholic Conference.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

Latest in Miscellany


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Connect with Style Weekly

Most Popular Stories

Copyright © 2021 Style Weekly
Richmond's alternative for news, arts, culture and opinion
All rights reserved
Powered by Foundation