A Growing Clamor for Relief

After months of intense lobbying by Jubilee 2000 campaigns, leaders of the world’s industrialized countries agreed at their meeting in Cologne, Germany, this summer to cancel $45 billion of debt for the world’s most impoverished countries. The G8 also emphasized the need to connect debt relief to poverty reduction and, surprisingly, suggested a role for civil society in the design of programs associated with debt relief.

Though it may open a hairline crack in the steel wall of structural adjustment programs and may significantly reduce the debt service payments of at least 16 countries, this latest proposal, while an important step, is far from enough. Debt reduction, for example, will be even more strictly linked to the highly controversial Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility of the IMF, and the power of the international financial institutions to condition and control the process of debt relief has been enhanced.

What the changes reflected in the Cologne proposal do demonstrate, however, is the remarkable impact of Jubilee 2000. In fact, advocates for cancellation of the debt are heard in every corner of the world—increasingly, in the mainstream and popular media. Jubilee campaigns in the global South, particularly in Africa and Latin America, are more and more clear in articulating their demands. In Europe, Jubilee 2000 is everywhere. Religious leaders continue to advocate for this as a necessary expression of economic justice. Celebrities with a social conscience, including U-2’s Bono and Muhammad Ali, are helping to animate a vast popular movement. Thousands upon thousands of people in local communities around the world are signing and circulating petitions and finding other ways to express their intention to see this major moral task accomplished soon.

Jubilee 2000 is also alive and well in this country. Slightly less visible here than in Europe, the campaign has been building a strong base across the United States through already existing institutional networks. The Mennonites, Friends, and Church of the Brethren, as well as the Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic, and Episcopal churches are heavily involved. So are Bread for the World, Sojourners, Pax Christi, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the National Council of Churches, and Church World Service. This year’s CROP Walk calls for debt cancellation; the Bread for the World Offering of Letters does the same. Many African Americans are seeing debt cancellation as essential to just U.S. policy toward Africa. People in solidarity with survivors of Hurricane Mitch in Central America insist that debt cancellation be at the heart of reconstruction there. Student groups and labor unions are beginning to join the movement. So are environmentalists, AIDS activists, and health care professionals.

Now the call for Jubilee in the United States has to turn into a clamor. Without vast, visible, creative, strong, and clear expressions here of grassroots political will for deep debt cancellation that really reduces poverty, the great global Jubilee campaign could well fall short of our goal. Why?

It is no secret that the United States wields excessive power in the global economy. As a major creditor and a loud voice in the World Bank and IMF, the United States must fully participate in the Jubilee. But without a strong push from constituents, the Clinton administration will support much-too-meager debt relief—and the U.S. Congress, which holds the purse strings, will never appropriate the required funds.

ARE WE NAIVE? Isn’t this matter of debt cancellation too complex to fuel a grassroots movement in this country? Not if the track record of Jubilee 2000 in the rest of the world is any indication. Not if what we see on the horizon bears fruit. The impact of overwhelming indebtedness on poor communities in impoverished countries is simply too tragic to ignore. The human, environmental, health, economic, and other connections to global well-being, including our own, are too evident.

Calls for jubilee levels of debt relief have reached a new level of seriousness and possibility. It is clear now that success will be measured not by macro-economic numbers but by real movement toward the elimination of poverty. Debt that is unpayable without exacerbating poverty and environmental destruction will be cancelled. Debt that was illegally or illegitimately contracted, whether by corrupt dictators or anyone else, will be cancelled. Debt that was faithfully serviced but nonetheless continued to grow due to very high interest rates will be cancelled.

Transparency and participation are essential to the jubilee process: The people themselves will help determine any conditions attached to debt cancellation and hold their government accountable for the responsible use of any freed-up funds.

Making real the biblical vision of Jubilee is not an optional response to God’s call. Rather, shaping a global economy of right relationship is a requirement of faithful discipleship in our times—a challenge we cannot ignore. Even here.

MARIE DENNIS is director of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns and a member of Assisi Community in Washington, D.C. She is chair of the Religious Working Group and on the Executive Committee of Jubilee 2000/USA

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