words into deeds
Short announced that the UK government would cancel 100 per cent of the debts owed to the UK by the poorest countries. Vying to be the next in line, Bill Clinton followed suit early this year and within months all the G7 countries had made similar announcements.
Hardly surprising then that Cafod has come across many people — even some hardened activists — who are convinced that the battle for debt cancellation has been won. Cafod's recent MORI poll showed that two-thirds of those who expressed an opinion believed that all the debts of the poorest countries will be cancelled by the end of this millennium year.
It is tempting to key into the fashion for accusing our current government of spin but that would be a bit unfair. This is all about vantagepoints. I have no doubt that from the vantage point of Gordon Brown and Clare Short this Government is proud of its record on Third World debt.
After all, it can claim credit for forcing debt onto the international agenda, drawing up proposals to shorten the sixyear timescale for debt relief, pushing for special status for post-conflict countries, and cancelling 100 per cent of the debts owed to the UK government.
Yet Jubilee 2000 has a rather different vantage point — that of the poorest people in the world in the most heavily indebted countries. And from that vantage point it is impossible to do anything but condemn world leaders for betraying the hopes and dreams for a new millennium.
Since the promises made by the G7 last year to cancel $100 billion of the debts of the poorest countries, not one country has received cancellation. Many countries have simply not come up with the money. Bill Clinton is unlikely to be able to fulfil the promises he made at Cologne after the US Congress last week offered $69 million instead of the $435 million asked for.
And even if world leaders did deliver on promises made at Cologne, we would be a long way from celebrating a real jubilee for the poor.
The Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPC), the debt relief process devised by the World Bank and IMF and adopted by creditor governments in 1996 fails to deliver the "robust exit from debt" it promised.
To win the coveted prize of debt cancellation, poor countries have to negotiate a mammoth obstacle race of conditions laid down by the World Bank and IMF. If they fall at any hurdles or stumble off track, they are told to go right back to the beginning and start again. And even the announcements of 100 per cent cancellation made with such great fanfare don't translate into real cancellation from the vantage point of the poor est of the poor.
While the British government cancelling 100 per cent of the debts is welcome. it's not much good to the many poor countries who owe most of their debts to the World Bank or IMF — who have refused to cancel 100 per cent — or to one of those G7 countries who cancelled 100 per cent of the debts owed before a certain cut off date — usually in the early to mid 1980s.
Added together these broken promises, delays, conditions and small print amount to an historic betrayal of the hopes of millions of people for a debt free start to the new nnllennium. When Pope John Paul II made the call fur a jubilee for the poor into his millennium theme, he inspired millions of people with a vision that became the basis for the Jubilee 2000 campaign. A vision of a world where the rich wipe the slate clean, forgive the debts of the poor and allow both rich and poor to give meaning to the new millennium. These early words were grasped by a British public desperately searching for an historic gesture to mark the new millennium — a public who told Cafod in a poll that they would prefer the Government to mark the millennium by cancelling Third World debt than building the Dome.
Now as world leaders meet for the last time this millennium year in Okinawa, Japan, they have one last chance to turn this vision into reality. There is no doubt that, if the political will is there, world leaders can deliver. There are plenty of reasons for doing so. Cafod's partner Mulima Akapelwa, recently made yet another journey from Zambia to Britain to remind our supporters why we must cancel the debt; because life expectancy in her country has fallen from 45 to 39; because one in five children will never reach their fifth birthday; because despite massive health problems Zambia still pays three times as much on foreign debts than on healthcare.
The reasons are there, the massive public pressure is there, the historic opportunity
is there — now we must pray that the world leaders will act.
Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and other world leaders have repeatedly claimed to support the idea of providing the world's poor with an escape route form unpayable debt. The men meeting in Okinawa are amongst the most powerful in the world.
My question to them this weekend is: If not now then when?