A Time for Jubilee

By Elizabeth Palmberg 4-04-2008

The subprime mortgage crisis in the U.S. has raised just outrage at the behavior of predatory lenders. It's wrong to push a mortgage which the lender knows the borrower won't be able to pay back, driving homeowners into foreclosure and bankruptcy.

But when poor nations have unpayable debt-often the result of Cold War favors to corrupt dictators-they can't declare bankruptcy. They have to just keep paying, even if all they can pay is the interest, never touching the principal. Even if it means ignoring desperate needs at home for education, antipoverty strategies, or fighting the AIDS pandemic. And even if, as is all too often the case, the creditors-wealthy nations or institutions like the IMF-impose harmful economic policies on debtor countries, as described last year in the Sojourners article "A Sabbath from Suffering."

The global Jubilee movement, which pushes for the cancellation of unpayable debts owed by poor countries and the re-dedication of that money to things like education and health care, has won some significant victories in the past decade, but much remains to be done. That's why it's so important that, this upcoming week, the House of Representatives is likely to vote on the Jubilee Act for Responsible Lending and Expanded Debt Cancellation (HR 2634). Read about it at www.jubileeusa.org.

One important part of the Jubilee Act is that it mandates an accounting of "odious debt"-loans taken out by dictators, and which the lender knew would go to corruption or would otherwise not help a country's people. Noreena Hertz's book The Debt Threat quotes one internal U.S. memo, written as the Cold War superpower was sending massive loans to its military ally, brutal dictator Mobutu Sese Seko: "the [corruption] in Zaire with all its wicked manifestations is so serious that there is no (repeat no) prospect for Zaire's creditors to get their money back." The Jubilee Act is a chance to start setting the record straight on cases like this. Millions of the world's poorest people are waiting.

Elizabeth Palmberg is an assistant editor of Sojourners.

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