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Bill would relieve bewildering debt problem


If you get bewildered when you hear about poor countries with staggering debts, join the crowd!

I have followed the tragic story of how, after the nations in OPEC quintupled the price of oil, they lent billions to U.S. lending entities, which in turn loaned massive amounts of money to underdeveloped countries. After a generation, impoverished nations like Mozambique send a $100 million a year in debt payments to rich countries even though less than 50 percent of Mozambique’s citizens have access to safe drinking water and most children do not go to primary school.

The same is true for 40 nations classified by the World Bank as “highly indebted.” These countries account for nearly one-fifth of the world’s people; 32 percent of these nations are located in sub-Sahara Africa. These 32 nations owe foreign creditors an average of almost $400 for every man, woman and child. These nations collect and transfer $13 billion each year to their creditors.

It is painfully clear that the situation is awful but not everyone, including this author, can follow the discussion about restructuring debts in the legalese of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

In an address in March 1999 to the representatives of 46 African nations, President Clinton promised a “deeper and faster” debt relief. These programs may well be coming up for a vote in Congress before Christmas. They are included in Bill H.R. 1095, The Debt Relief for Poverty Reduction Act. This bill, authored by Congressman Jim Leach, R-Iowa, has the endorsement of the U.S. Catholic Conference, Bread for the World, Oxfam and a broad coalition of humanitarian organizations.

Bread for the World, which just finished the celebration of its 25th year, is taking the leadership role on mobilizing support for the Leach bill. Leach is chairman of the House Banking Committee and has broad bipartisan support for his creative proposition. Bread for the World supports this as a part of its program for the Jubilee Year.

Pope John Paul II referred to the Jubilee Year and the urgent need for debt forgiveness in his address in St. Louis in February 1999. The idea of forgiveness or allowing nations to declare bankruptcy is in the Hebrew scriptures, especially in Leviticus, which calls for a year of jubilee every 50 years.

The calendar of Congress in the fall and winter will be crowded with things that to many members of Congress are far less complicated and more important than debt forgiveness to the poorest nations in the world. The members of Congress need to know that large numbers of people in America feel strongly that Mozambique and some 40 other nations deserve relief.

Bread for the World will furnish excellent material on this issue; its address is 1100 Wayne Avenue, Silver Spring MD 20910. The phone is (301) 608-2400; fax is (301) 608-2401. Heading Bread for the World is David Beckman, an expert on international economics and a former official in the international lending organizations.

A large unconditional write-off of international debts is not politically realistic. But the proposals in the Leach bill have a chance of becoming law. The 40 poorest nations will be more destitute 10 years from now unless the debt that is strangling them is at least partially forgiven.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

National Catholic Reporter, September 17, 1999