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Jubilee campaign for debt relief gains momentum

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
South Orange, N.J.

At 67, Archbishop Medardo Mazombwe of Lusaka, Zambia, has already far surpassed the average Zambian lifespan of 48 years.

Educated, ordained and made a bishop during a period when Zambia was among the richest African nations, Mazombwe has lived to see his country’s economy and its people decline to their desperate straits of today.

Among complex factors behind Zambia’s economic collapse were the doubling and tripling in the 1970s in the price of its chief import, oil, and the halving at the same time in the price of its major export, copper. Such factors set the stage for Zambia’s share of today’s global debt crisis.

“We are slaves of debt,” Mazombwe said. “My country spends more money on debt than schools, health, water and sewer combined.”

Mazombwe was among more than 65 participants who came to Seton Hall University here Oct. 22 and 23 for a meeting on the ethical dimensions of international debt and debt relief for poor countries.

The international conference brought together major players in all areas of the Third World debt debate. It was the culmination of nearly two years of work, sparked by a request from Pope John Paul II to the U.S. bishops to convene such a meeting.

The church’s Jubilee campaign for debt relief takes its theme from Leviticus 25 -- the scriptural admonition for freeing slaves and forgiving debts every 50 years. Newark Archbishop Theodore McCarrick recalled hearing World Bank President James Wolfensohn suggest to a group of bankers in September that the Jubilee year 2000 was a time for real debt relief.

McCarrick said that some of the financiers laughed at Wolfensohn’s remark. The church’s task is to “challenge that laughter and turn it into commitment -- to debt relief and poverty relief,” said McCarrick, who heads the U.S. bishops’ International Policy Committee.

The campaign “is not a laughing matter for us or for the millions who suffer under the burden of international debt,” the bishop said at a public lecture on the eve of the conference.

Little left for social services

In Zambia, Mazombwe said, debt service costs $200 million per year, leaving less than $50 million to be spent on health care and much less on education, agriculture and the environment.

As a consequence of the debt, thousands of children cannot afford to attend school, a majority lives without sanitation or running water and 85 percent of the 9.5 million Zambians “exist in absolute poverty,” Mazombwe reported.

He added, “Stability and development are possible only if we break the chains of debt.”

Financial experts argue that debt forgiveness could throw global markets into chaos and doom future lending efforts to developing nations. Wolfensohn said the real focus of lobbying should be on the leaders of wealthy countries, who have cut foreign aid dramatically in recent years.

Michel Camdessus, managing director of the International Monetary Fund -- IMF -- urged the conference to maintain “a twin focus -- debt relief and poverty alleviation” in its discussions.

“If we exclusively stress debt relief, we might perhaps win a battle, but we would lose the war,” he said. “And we are losing the war.”

Participants focused especially on the two-year-old Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative. The initiative is a joint project of the IMF, World Bank and major creditor nations to relieve the world’s poorest nations of the portion of their debt considered beyond their capacity to pay.

Tale of three countries

The limits of the initiative were brought into sharp focus the first afternoon of the conference when participants studied the debt problems of Uganda, which has qualified for relief under the initiative’s rules; Zambia, which is struggling to do so; and Honduras, which cannot qualify under current rules.

If the year 2000 is to be a time for new beginnings and for ending old wrongs by removing the debt burden from the poorest nations, McCarrick and other speakers noted the complexity of the task. Ethical choices must be made as to whose debt is forgiven. How do we forgive debt and how do we ensure that debt forgiveness protects the lives and dignity of the poor and vulnerable, he asked.

Msgr. Diarmuid Martin, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said that the church has something to learn about the way in which ethical principles are translated into political and economic policy. To advocate on behalf of social justice and human dignity, the church must understand the nature of modern economics, he said.

However, it would seem that world bankers did not learn about poverty or infant mortality in their economics courses, he said, noting that at an IMF and World Bank gathering in Hong Kong last year, a banker was heard to ask, “Where are we? In church on Sunday?”

At a meeting with journalists, Camdessus said he regretted the kind of distinction that is sometimes implied, namely that the church is pro-life and the banks are “pro-death, protecting their creditors and making sure they get their money back.” When it comes to the global debt crisis, “we are all in the same boat,” he said.

Wolfensohn said he found “no real conflict” between the bank and the church on debt forgiveness. “It’s just a question of how each meets that objective,” said Wolfensohn, who’s made three trips to the Vatican in recent months and met with the pope.

He said that across the world 1.3 billion people live on less than $1 a day; 3 billion live on less than $2 a day; l.3 billion have no access to clean water; 3 billion have no access to sanitation; 2 billion have no access to power. Wolfensohn said he’s seen such conditions with his own eyes in 83 lands.

“Anything the church can do to bring this to the attention of the world helps my job,” Wolfensohn said.

Along with Martin, who urged Christians to consider lifestyle changes and to moderate their consumption habits, Wolfensohn agreed that much of the action to alleviate world poverty has to come from people in the rich nations.

Corruption in the Third World is another obstacle to development, Wolfensohn said, adding that the bank was blacklisting firms that are corrupt and reducing loans to “a very low level in countries where we see rampant corruption.”

It would be “utopian” to think all the debt could be canceled, he told NCR, noting that overall global debt was at $2 trillion while that of the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries was at $215 billion.

In the Americas, the poverty of debt-burdened countries will continue to directly affect the United States, Archbishop Oscar Andrés Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, told NCR. “When there is no development in the South, migrants will continue flowing north ... because it’s a situation of despair,” he said.

Rodriguez, president of the Latin American bishops’ conference, said that poor nations in Latin America must examine “how to create a culture of self-sufficiency.” Microeconomic credits -- such as small loans to women to develop cottage industries, increasing agricultural output or improving the environment will play a key role, he said.

The Seton Hall conference, sponsored by the university, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the U.S. Bishops’ Conference was a continuation of the talks the Vatican has been conducting with the IMF and the World Bank over the past 18 months. The invitation-only conference featured more than 60 representatives of the World Bank, IMF, debtor nations, creditor nations, international commercial investors and lenders, the Catholic church, U.S. and European relief agencies, and the academic world.

Catholic News Service and Religion News Service contributed to this report.

The Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative (HIPC) has home pages both under the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). For additional background information, we have also added a link to One World’s Web site, which includes a brief description. To return to this page, use your browser’s “Back” button.

  • World Bank’s HIPC page.
  • IMF’s pages on the initiative.
  • IMF’s pamphlet on the initiative.
  • Brief description from One World.

National Catholic Reporter, November 13, 1998