The Common Good
January-February 1999

A Mature Compassion

by Marvin Rees | January-February 1999

Real disaster relief requires more then 'Good Samaritan' acts.

"In 72 hours we lost what we had built, little by little, in 50 years." These were the words of Honduran President Carlos Flores Facusse following the emergency summit of Central American leaders in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch. In Honduras and Nicaragua, the most affected countries, 10,000 people were killed. Honduras needs new homes for 1.4 million and 70 percent of the nation's crops were destroyed. In Nicaragua more than 1,600 miles of roads were destroyed and 42 bridges damaged beyond repair. Costs of reconstruction are estimated at $3 billion.

Compassion has been mobilized. Ordinary people have responded to the misery, donating money, time, and resources. The U.S. government has announced an aid package worth tens of millions of dollars. However, without debt relief, this sort of compassion will mean little in the long run. For Carole Collins, national coordinator of the Jubilee 2000/USA campaign, it is plain. "The U.S. commitment...is certainly welcome and needed," Collins said. "Yet Nicaragua and Honduras are obliged to pay back more than $2.2 million every day. Unless it is canceled, this debt burden—which is essentially unpayable—will make the effort at long-term recovery a tragic failure. It is absolutely shameful that, especially after a disaster of this magnitude, we continue to demand repayment."

In solidarity with sister campaigns around the world, Jubilee 2000/USA has been calling on world leaders to engage in a process of debt cancellation for the world's poorest countries to mark the new millennium. In the wake of this catastrophe, calls have gone out for an immediate cancellation for the affected countries. Debt cancellation has been identified as the single most important action creditor governments and international financial institutions can undertake to ensure recovery, bring about the conditions conducive to the eradication of poverty, and ensure that such devastation is not repeated. This is the sort of mature compassion we as a world community need to move toward.

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. stressed that we are all called to play the Good Samaritan, but that it is only an initial act. One day we must come to see that we need to work on the very nature of the Jericho road to prevent the beatings and robberies. "True compassion is more than flinging a coin at a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that the edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."

The massive indebtedness of Honduran and Nicaraguan life is a part of that edifice. While science and technology have discovered more disaster-prevention measures, deaths in heavily indebted countries continue to rise. Appropriate actions to reduce the impact of disasters are hindered by fiscal constraints. And yet fiscal constraints are the watchword of "responsible" government, as advocated by World Bank/IMF structural adjustment programs. Alejandro Bendano of the Nicaragua Jubilee 2000 initiative explained, "What people don't realize is how having to make debt payments and adhere to IMF-imposed austerity measures helped degrade our emergency response capacity. Because of budget cuts our civil defense agency is woefully understaffed and had no units whatsoever in at least a third of the municipalities....We need debt cancellation now more than ever."

The G8 nations and international financial institutions are heavily implicated in this catastrophe. The role of debt, the diversion of vital government resources from the poor to debt service, and the increasing inequality encouraged by IMF-World Bank structural adjustment programs are clear if we dig a little. The true test of our leaders' compassion comes as they consider what measures they are prepared to take to help Central America cope in the short term and eradicate poverty in the long term.

Those languishing under the burden of debt need President Clinton and other world leaders to hear the growing call for debt cancellation. Without that kind of true compassion, catastrophes like this will happen again. And if we—knowing how they could have been prevented—fail to act, then highly publicized Samaritan acts will not mitigate our guilt.

For more information contact Jubilee 2000/USA at (202) 783-3566; e-mail: coord@j2000usa.org; or www.j2000usa. org.

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