An Irresistible Force

It might seem odd to describe Hamsatou, a 13-year-old girl in the West African country of Niger, as lucky. A mysterious flesh-eating disease known as "the Grazer" has consumed the left side of her face, leaving a gaping hole at the side of her nose, through which you can see her pink, unprotected tongue. She shields her head in embarrassment in her village, has no prospect of marriage, and rarely walks further than the nearby well. "When I go to the market," she says, "I'm ashamed of myself. I cover my face so people won't stare at me and laugh."

But Hamsatou is lucky because she is alive. One in three children in Niger, the world's poorest country, do not reach 5 years of age. And while the Grazer will kill 120,000 children in the world this year, a $3 mouthwash would have ensured she need never have succumbed to its ravages. Unfortunately the government of Niger does not have $3 to spare. Three quarters of its annual tax revenue is spent on servicing its $1.4 billion international debt.

CUT TO NAIROBI, KENYA, where Anthony Minghella, Oscar-winning director of The English Patient, is working with a team of six local actors on a short film. Minghella is acutely aware that many pictures beamed from developing countries into the homes of richer countries have lost their emotional power. "We have been saturated by images of starving children surrounded by flies, calculated to elicit sympathy. They don't speak to us anymore." But when Minghella—and his friend Richard Curtis, the writer of Four Weddings and A Funeral and Notting Hill—met the British Chancellor Gordon Brown, as part of the Jubilee 2000 campaign to cancel Third World debt, they realized that maybe a film could tackle the underlying structures of poverty—without anaesthetizing the viewer. The result, an hors d'oeuvres to last summer's Hollywood blockbusters in British cinema, opens with an African family scratching a living from selling peanuts and making model planes from coat hangers. At days end, the family members pool their meager earnings. Leaving their house they are transported—by the magic of film—to Waterloo Bridge in London and thence to a suburban street. Here they knock on the doors of strangers, introducing themselves—and giving back to these people the money they owe them.

"I am only a filmmaker," says Minghella. "I'm the least qualified person to talk about world debt. But if someone who obviously didn't have enough money to live on knocked on my door and said, ‘Here's some money,' I'd say, ‘No thanks, I don't want it.' But that is what we do every day by doing nothing about the unpayable debts of poor countries."

Final cut, this time to a nightclub in Rome. It's mid-September, 3 a.m., the room is heaving with groovy young Italian clubbers, the music thunderous. Bono, of rock band U2, is partying the small hours away before heading out to the airport and an early flight to Washington, D.C., where he will lobby the IMF. Fellow debt-cancellation campaigners such as former rock-star turned media-mogul Bob Geldof, record producer Quincy Jones, Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs, and Anne Pettifor, who heads up the London campaign group Jubilee 2000, are sleeping the sleep of the just. It was a good day. They met the pope at Castle Gandolfo, his summer residence, and he gave the campaign a ringing endorsement. Better still, Bono came out of the meeting to pronounce to the assembled press that the Holy Father was a "funky pontiff" who had pinched his trademark fly-shades. The pictures and soundbite sped round the globe: Riding side-saddle went the news that it is time for the rich countries to liberate poor countries from their unpayable burden of debts. Mission accomplished.

"As long as the massive debts of these countries remain, they are effectively imprisoned by the rich countries in a modern ‘debtors prison,'" explains Bono during a break in the music. "In the 19th century, if someone couldn't pay back a debt, their families might be put into debtors prison. In the 20th century, the practice was abolished for individuals, but not for countries. Now they are held ransom for the mistakes of previous regimes.

"A country like Niger, with a life expectancy of 47 years, spends more paying off their debts than on health and education combined. This is an obscenity."

UNTIL THE JUBILEE 2000 campaign came along, it was an obscenity about global fiscal policy, historic international loans, and compound interest, an obscenity that was too complicated to unravel. But by the end of last year, a rag-tag movement of churches, development organizations, and trade unions, sprinkled with the fairy dust of celebrities like Bono and Muhammad Ali, had persuaded leaders of the richest countries to wipe out $111 billion of debts of the poorest countries. That's about one third of the total the campaign is demanding.

And it has been the churches, grasping a biblical vision of release to economic captives, that has inspired the movement. As Will Hutton, one of Britain's leading economic commentators, put it in The Observer: "I doubt many readers know the Old Testament books of Leviticus, Exodus,

and Deuteronomy any more than I do, but without them there would be no Jubilee 2000, no debt campaign, and no international public pressure. At the end of an increasingly secular century, it has been the biblical proof and moral imagination of religion that have torched the principles of the hitherto unassailable citadels of international finance."

In fact it was Bill Peters and Martin Dent, a couple of 70-something Christian eccentrics from England's East Midlands—who'd spent part of their working life in West Africa—who had the original moment of inspiration. Why not mark the millennium with the Old Testament idea of a jubilee—when a ram's horn was blown and all debts were off, all slaves released? Why not get the rich nations to cancel the unpayable debts of the poor ones, liberating a billion people from economic bondage? The pope himself, in the 1980s, had called for debt cancellation in the "jubilee year," but it had gone unheeded and the Debt Crisis Network, a campaign group funded by British aid agencies and headed by Anne Pettifor, had performed vital background work—but never put the idea on the political map.

It was Bill and Martin's big idea, allied to the urgency bequeathed by a rapidly approaching millennium date, that suddenly became a good cause worth endorsing and then a kick-ass campaign. The mood changed in 1998. As Jamie Drummond, one of the core campaigners working with Pettifor, explained, it was the churches that laid the groundwork. When the leaders of the G7, the world's richest seven countries, met in Birmingham, England, that May, 60,000 campaigners—mobilized by aid agencies like Christian Aid and Catholic Action For Overseas Development—surrounded the convention center with a massive human chain, symbolizing the debts of the poor world to the rich. It put the campaign in a media-glare that ratcheted up the political pressure.

"The church networks have been the bedrock from which everything has come," said Drummond. "That demonstration ensured that the politicians had to start taking the campaign seriously. For our high-profile supporters, like Bono and Muhammad Ali, it shone a light on this huge grassroots movement which gave them the confidence to get on board with us."

THE CAMPAIGN GREW through 1998, largely still in the churches, but Hurricane Mitch put debt in the news again that autumn—with British and American politicians having to explain why three countries whose economies had been destroyed had to still keep paying back debts to international institutions. If the moral argument became more graphic than ever, the campaign had still to find a broader base of popular support. Drummond, meanwhile, who had left Christian Aid to work full-time with Pettifor at Jubilee 2000, had been beavering away behind the scenes, trying to recruit articulate celebrities who could take the argument to a mass audience.

Live Aid, he told U2's Bono in a clinching pitch, had raised $200 million for African relief—the African nations owed that much in debt payments every five days, more than they spent on health care and education. He judged that the singer, whose band had shot to global fame with their participation in Live Aid, might buy the idea that it was time for the music industry to finish what it started. He was right.

"Here was a chance to revisit that situation, but with more than a Band-Aid," says Bono, a chance "to look at the structure of poverty." With Bono on board, Drummond found it easier to recruit other players in the British music industry and at last year's BRIT Awards—the nationally televised music pop bash that wins 10 million viewers—the Jubilee 2000 campaign burst into popular consciousness, with celebrity after celebrity urging support. After that, barely a month passed when it didn't hit the headlines, gradually convincing British politicians that there was a democratic mandate for waiving Third World debt. Chancellor Gordon Brown—son of a Church of Scotland minister who (until his recent death) used to ring Brown and lobby him on debt—has become a key international mover. Like other European politicians, he has been deluged by campaign postcards from church groups telling him to do the right thing. One postcard was from his own mother.

THE CAMPAIGN HAS BEEN an object lesson in how to make a viciously complex idea about global fiscal policy dead simple, and about how to give meaning to that archetypal—but invariably meaningless—contemporary currency, fame. For the public the argument has rarely been about the IMF or the World Bank—it has been a moral one. For example Ewan McGregor—aka young Obi-Wan in last year's Star Wars epic—visited South Africa for the British media-charity Comic Relief, a coalition partner in Jubilee 2000. He evidently didn't need a degree in economics to get the picture.

"It was shocking for me to realize that when a child is born in Africa, it already owes lots of money to the West," he recalls. "It's just insane; there are kids starving to death and countries aren't allowed to support their people because they're too busy selling crops to earn money to pay us back—and we don't even need it!"

When Bono and Radiohead's Thom Yorke went on-line to talk about Third World debt one evening, a record 2 million people logged on. While the stars kept the mass market pressure on, the church networks in Britain and Europe hit the streets. Last June a million people in 30 countries, including 50,000 in London, took to the streets. A petition demanding the debts be dropped, handed to German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder at the G8 summit in Cologne, came with 12 million signatures. Many signatures had been collected in Africa.

Watching Bob Geldof alongside Bono arguing with Tony Blair in Cologne illustrated powerfully how the argument has changed. Fourteen years before, Geldof had berated TV viewers of Live Aid into rescuing Ethiopia from famine. For a desperate moment, before the tears dried, it worked. But in Ethiopia today, a quarter of a million people die annually from diarrhea—while the country spends six times more repaying debt than on health care.

Jubilee 2000 has brilliantly switched the argument from charity to justice, from guilt to anger, from collecting tins to political demos. And, to their credit, a series of stars have exploited their fame to do what aid agencies could never do—make debt fashionable.

IN RECRUITING BONO to its side, Jubilee 2000 has found someone with the odd combination of global recognition and winning eloquence. Aid agencies and political campaigners can't get Tony Blair on the phone, but Bono can. Political lobbyists can't just walk into Bill Clinton's office, but Bono can and has, several times. He's also lobbied German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, U.S. Treasury Secretaries Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, Federal Reserve Chair Paul Volcker, and World Bank President James Wolfensohn.

"We expected that Bono's involvement might be concerts and records," says Drummond. "But it turned out he's a very brilliant political lobbyist."

On top of the $100 billion debt cancellation agreed to in Cologne, at the end of the year the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom made bilateral pledges of a further $11 billion in debt cancellation. These actions will lead to significant debt reduction for 33 countries, but it is only a first step. Many of the 52 countries that Jubilee 2000 considers in urgent need of debt cancellation will get nothing. The G8 millennium summit on Sunday, July 23, on Okinawa Island, Japan, is now targeted as Debt Decision Day—the campaign is focused on getting debt cancellation high on the G8 agenda and extending the commitments to date.

Critics still claim that canceling debts sends the wrong message to Third World governments—they'll only borrow more, then expect us to cancel those debts too. But the right kind of debt cancellation works for everyone. After World War II, the Allies agreed to a massive debt relief for Germany not just because a stable Germany meant peace in Europe, but because it meant lots of customers for American and British goods.

The thorniest issue now is ensuring that funds freed from debt repayment are diverted into health-care and education for the poor—not into the pockets of corrupt politicians. In fact, countries can only qualify for relief by showing that the new money is opening classrooms and hospitals.

Film director Anthony Minghella is aware of the critics, but his own African journey has convinced him that the moral argument to alleviate debt must overwhelm the political and fiscal complexities.

"When you are standing in a slum the size of London's Regents Park with a million people in it," Minghella said, "your intellect gives way quickly to another more urgent feeling, one that says if you are contributing to this in any way you must stop.

"None of us want to be responsible for other people living in indescribable conditions, so let us collectively say no."

Bill Peters and Martin Dent, inspirational founders of the Jubilee 2000 campaign, quote the 19th century Anti-Slavery Reporter, which called public opinion "the steam which will enable Parliament to extinguish slavery in one massive stroke." The steam building against Third World debt has powered one of the most successful grassroots campaigns of modern times, but the steam of protest must rise further before the task is completed. No one can get out the ram's horn just yet. Not until Hamsatou in Niger starts feeling the benefits.

Martin Wroe was a freelance writer based in London when this article appeared.

Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"An Irresistible Force"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines