Jubilee Year: Time to Pardon Financial Debt of World’s Poorest?

Washington — January 1, 2000 marks more than the turn of the millennium in the Western calendar. It also signals the beginning of a ‘jubilee year’ in the Hebrew calendar, which occurs every 50 years to ensure that social and environmental equilibrium remains in balance.

In ancient Israel, a jubilee year was a time for releasing slaves, reapportioning land and canceling debts.

This ancient concept has led to an international campaign, Jubilee 2000, calling for a cancellation of the financial debt of the world’s poorest countries. The U.S. campaign, while not faith-based, comprises a coalition of 35 organizations including the National Council of Churches, environmental and other groups, as well as women’s, peasant, union and other watchdog groups in over 60 countries around the world.

‘This is a grassroots campaign to change the policy of our government,’ said David Bryden, communications coordinator for the Jubilee 2000 USA Campaign.

‘This is not about canceling debt and throwing a big party,’ Bryden said. ‘It is good to pay back your debts. But these debts these countries face are unmanageable. These are debts that have been acquired without knowledge or say-so of the people.’

Some of the poorest nations of the world, including countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, have been struggling with a high debt burden since the early 1980s. Bryden said that much of the debt is the result of ill-conceived development, flawed policies and shortsighted decisions.

Furthermore, most of the increase in international debt that occurred during this decade has come from interest accruing on existing loans and not for productive investment.

The external debt of sub-Saharan Africa today stands at about $235 billion, with more money currently being paid by these countries to service these debts than is available to meet basic needs for its people, such as health, education, water and sanitation. ‘Tanzania pays nine times more to service its debt than they invest in health care or education for its people,’ Bryden said.

‘We need to stop pretending that these loans will ever get paid off,’ he said. ‘These countries are getting more loans to pay off the loans.’ The loans create a stranglehold on these countries; defaulting on the loans is not an option since doing so would squeeze the country out of international credit. ‘We’re talking about countries that depend on imports for everything from soap to food…. They could literally starve if their government decides to default on its loans.’

On July 8, International Monitoring, a London-based financial consulting group, reported that such debtor nations may face even more hardship in the year 2000. The group analyzed data from Moody?s Investor Service for 83 countries with high debt burdens and low credit ratings, concluding that many are also at greater risk of adverse economic impact from unremedied Y2K computer disruptions.

The Jubilee coalition is trying to convince members of Congress to have debtor countries’ debts canceled or reduced, on a case-by-case basis. ‘What we want is to create a framework for these countries to get out from under their debt,’ Bryden said. The resources that would be used to pay off debt would then be

funneled back into the country for basic health, environmental and education services.

One ray of hope for the group is pending legislation in Congress, the Debt Relief for Poverty Reduction Act, which would cancel most of the debt owed to the U.S. government. That bill is currently being debated in full committee, Bryden said.

‘Our resolution is to look at the Year 2000 as an opportunity to do something meaningful for the poorest people in the world,’ he said.

Contact: David Bryden, communications coordinator, The Jubilee 2000 USA Campaign, Washington, D.C., 202-783-3566; web site: www.j2000usa.org.

Background: International Monitoring group debt analysis, Year 2000 Information center, web site: www.year2000.com.

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