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Jubilee politics

International | International debt forgiveness moves from biblical injunction to fashion statement

Issue: "Clinton unites conservatives," Oct. 10, 1998

Cause-oriented lapel-wear has a new drift in London. Charlie Colchester, head of Christian Action Research and Education (Care) and a frequent lobbyist in the houses of Parliament, has one: a pewter-looking link of chain that nearly fades into the tweed of his jacket.

The cause it represents is not fading, however: Jubilee 2000, a campaign to change global debt structuring, is gaining momentum, both in Great Britain, where it began, and in the United States, where Jubilee 2000 organizers last week met in Washington.

Jubilee 2000 began with a biblical mandate, according to spokesman Nick Buxton of Jubilee 2000's London office. Subscribing to the text of Deuteronomy 15:1-2 ("At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel the loan he has made to his fellow Israelite ..."), the group is urging creditor nations to cancel debts incurred by "the poorest of the poor" nations, and to do it by the year 2000. This bypasses the question of whether "fellow Israelites" applies to those outside the household of faith.

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Taking the World Bank's definition of "Heavily Indebted Poor Countries," together with measures of gross domestic product and other economic factors, Jubilee 2000 came up with a list of countries-numbering between 40 and 60-which it says qualify for cancellation of foreign debt because they are too poor to pay up.

"The idea originated in Britain and took off in Britain under the byline of cancellation of unpayable debt through a fair and transparent process," said Mr. Buxton.

"Break the chains of debt" reads a leaflet that accompanies the chain-link lapel pin. The brochure states that annually 21 million children will die as a result of a global debt crisis. Also included in the brochure is a petition that organizers say is gaining currency among churchgoers and secular humanitarian organizations alike.

Mr. Buxton says the campaign has gained appeal "by applying a biblical standard to a modern situation." The groups that have joined the campaign, however, include one-worlders like Oxfam, the international famine relief organization, liberal church denominations like the Baptist World Alliance, and conservative groups like the Mennonite Central Committee.

Care, which has taken conservative Christian positions on issues before Parliament like no-fault divorce and abortion, may be skittish on this issue: A spokesman said Care "sees no controversy" in the goals of Jubilee 2000, but is not, as an organization, endorsing it.

The Jubilee appeal plays into headline news around the globe. At the heart of the overseas economic crisis is the issue of debt relief. The solution for healthy creditor-nations involves a "moral hazard" dilemma: If tight restrictions are imposed on countries as a return for debt forgiveness, recession will likely ensue. If debts are forgiven with no questions asked, more debt will likely be incurred. In this country, conservatives in the House of Representatives are holding up emergency funding for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in return for greater restrictions on how the money is spent.

Jubilee 2000 does not disagree with the hold-up. Mr. Buxton says the organization is not asking "whether the money is well spent," but is instead "focusing on the poor, who have suffered the most under this structure." In response to a question about whether cancelling debts will teach irresponsibility, Mr. Buxton says the people bearing the burden of national debt-the poor-aren't the ones who incurred it. His case in point: the former Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, according to Mr. Buxton, in one instance borrowed millions from overseas lending agencies. "None of it ever benefited the people," said Mr. Buxton. "Yet when Mobutu died, the IMF said to the new government, 'You owe us this money.' The new government has nothing to do with it, and cannot account for the money Mobutu took."

The IMF, which has received considerable criticism for its refinancing strategies, has issued several replies to the Jubilee 2000 campaign; spokesman Vasuki Shaftry directed WORLD to the agency's Web page on heavily indebted countries. It reads, "The unconditional cancellation risks debt relief being squandered on corruption, military expenditure, or grandiose projects with little if any benefit in terms of sustainable growth or poverty reduction." The IMF report says debt relief should continue to be a "careful process" rather than a one-time bailout.

That position paper does not deter Jubilee 2000 activists. In May they formed a human chain in Birmingham, England, surrounding the meeting site of G8 finance heads. More than 70,000 people took part. Jubilee 2000 organizers in the United States planned a similar demonstration Oct. 4 during their national meeting in Washington. They expected Jesse Jackson to lead the formation of a chain there, which will surround IMF headquarters. Jubilee 2000 USA has opened a Los Angeles office because it believes the cause has much mileage to gain through celebrity endorsements. To watch for at next year's Oscars: chain-link lapel pins.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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