A book of the Old Testament is inspiring a global grass-roots
movement aimed at giving a fresh start to the world's most
impoverished countries by the year 2000.
Taking its lead from the "year of jubilee" proclaimed in
Leviticus, a coalition led by faith-based organizations - Jubilee
2000 - is now active in 45 nations pressing for cancellation of the
poor nations' international debt.
"People are motivated and moved by the biblical roots of this
campaign," says Carole Collins, US coordinator for the effort. "In
the vision of Jubilee," says an Episcopal Church paper on the
subject, every 50 years, "'right relationships' are restored, social
inequalities are rectified, slaves are freed, and debts are
canceled," in recognition of God as the provider of all.
As disparities between rich and poor countries widen, social
conditions in the poorest nations are deteriorating. The World Bank
identifies 41 "heavily indebted poor countries" (HIPCs), and they
paying an average of 40 percent of revenues for debt service. Many
are diverting scarce resources from education, health, and
infrastructure programs, often with devastating consequences.
Development aid, meanwhile, is at the lowest rate in a half century.
The question is whether the Jubilee movement can persuade wealthy
creditor nations to cancel the debt - or at least to offer "faster
and deeper" relief than is available under current-debt reduction
programs. Ninety percent of the approximately $220 billion debt is
owed to individual governments and the multilateral institutions
(World Bank and International Monetary Fund) where industrialized
nations hold control.
"We still have a year and a half and this campaign is really
snowballing," says Justin Forsyth of Oxfam International, which is
active in the coalition, "but we're a long way away from a huge
breakthrough on this issue."
Many in the movement are upbeat about prospects, both because of
mushrooming grass-roots enthusiasm and what they see as a new
international mood. They see the next six months leading up to the
summit of the Group of 8 industrialized nations (G-8) in Cologne,
Germany, next June as crucial.
Calls for change
Jubilee 2000 got its start in 1996 in Britain, where it mobilized
50,000 people for a show of support last May at the Birmingham G-8
summit. The British government's bid to spur changes on debt at that
meeting was rebuffed, however - most vigorously by Germany. But a
new center-left German government has since been elected, and its
minister for international development in a recent interview
indicated an intent to propose changes that would be presented at
Cologne to speed and broaden relief. If this becomes official
policy, it would be a significant shift.
Germany and Japan have long opposed debt cancellation, says John
Sewell, president of Overseas Development Council in Washington, and
other countries aren't far behind. "There's an ingrained reluctance
to forgive debt."
Cancellation isn't in the interests of debtors, some say, because
it would harm their capacity to borrow in the future. It could also
pose a "moral hazard," rewarding cases of irresponsible management
the expense of others who have done a good job and creating
expectations that future debts might be forgiven. Advocates say
there's an element, too, of creditors wanting to maintain leverage
over economic policies.
"What we are trying to achieve," says a senior United States
Treasury official, "is to reduce the debt to the point where the
country can afford to service it and still have adequate capacity to
grow in the future, yet get out from under the burden."
There is a growing recognition that the situation is dire. In a
meeting with Anglican bishops in July, World Bank President James
Wolfensohn acknowledged that "we are losing the battle" against
poverty, and that debt repayment was "a principal reason" social and
other services cannot be provided in the poorest countries. …