The Common Good
January-February 2001

Something to Celebrate!

by Marie Dennis | January-February 2001

Considering that two years ago Congress had little interest in the issue, the action is nothing short of a miracle.

Thanks to tremendous grassroots efforts and skillful advocacy, anti-debt campaigners in the United States had something to celebrate as Congress moved toward adjournment this fall. A coalition that brought to the halls of Congress not only Bono of U2 but also "every missionary in the world," in the words of Rep. Sonny Callahan, convinced legislators to appropriate money needed for the United States to begin doing its share toward debt relief for some of the world's most impoverished countries.

Considering that only two years ago Congress had little or no interest in this issue, the appropriation is nothing short of a miracle. There is much more to be done to address the debt crisis and create a just global economy, of course, but for now proponents of Jubilee are "glad indeed."

Jubilee 2000 and its allies essentially prevailed on all major items:

  • Congress appropriated $435 million for cancellation of bilateral debt owed to the United States by highly indebted low-income countries, and authorized the International Monetary Fund to revalue its gold stocks to fund multilateral debt reduction.

Jubilee 2000 and other advocates worked for this funding all year, and many times it looked like they would come away with little to show. A July 13 amendment by Rep. Maxine Waters that brought House funding up to roughly $225 million passed by five votes. Senate funding lagged far behind, at $75 million. In the end debt relief advocates won the full amount requested by the Clinton administration for this fiscal year, as well as last year's previously unfunded request. Rep. Waters and other congressional allies credited the grassroots Jubilee 2000 campaign for keeping the heat on Congress.

  • Sen. Phil Gramm's attempts to hold up debt cancellation were rejected. Gramm sought to block debt funding until the IMF was "reformed" by requiring borrowers to completely open their markets to multinational corporations and to privatize public services. No such conditions were imposed. As chair of the Senate Banking Committee, Gramm has considerable power to block legislation. In the end, other legislators insisted that Gramm step aside and let this legislation go forward, because they were simply getting tired of hearing from constituents calling for debt cancellation now.
  • The spirit and most of the substance of the House-approved "user fees" amendment (originally sponsored by Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.) was retained. The conferees agreed that U.S. representatives to the IMF, World Bank, and regional development banks must oppose all loans that include user fees or service charges for basic health care and education where such fees would be paid for by poor people. This specifically includes programs for treatment and prevention of AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, as well as maternal and child health. If loans with user fees are approved over U.S. objections, there must be a report to Congress within 10 days.

When Uganda received debt relief in 1999, it used much of the $45 million saved to finance removal of user fees on school attendance. Within less than a year, school attendance has almost doubled. This amendment has the potential to reduce some of the worst effects of traditional IMF and World Bank austerity measures and to stretch the hard-won benefits of debt reduction much farther.

But even as celebrations continued, Jubilee campaigns around the world were reorganizing themselves to move beyond the year 2000 and preparing for the next round in the debate. Despite significant awareness and political will around the world to respond in a positive way to the debt crisis, much, much deeper and broader debt cancellation is yet needed. Beyond that, mechanisms are needed to deal with the billions of dollars of illegally contracted or blatantly illegitimate debt for which too many impoverished communities around the world continue to pay.

Marie Dennis was director of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns and a member of the executive committee of Jubilee 2000/USA when this article appeared.

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