1998 NCC News Archives

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WCC Assembly Issues Impassioned Plea for Debt Forgiveness

HARARE, Zimbabwe, Dec. 14, 1998 -- Among themes running through the World Council of Churches' 8th Assembly was the need to forgive the external debt of the world's poorest, most indebted countries and substantial debt reduction for severely indebted, middle-income countries.

Delegates approved a new policy, which declares, "Debt bondage by the poorest countries to western governments and creditors is today's new slavery. The accelerating concentration of wealth for a few in the richest countries and the devastating decline in living standards in the poorest countries calls for correction along the lines of the ancient Sabbath and Jubilee cycles."

The policy analyzes the "devastating cycle of debt accumulation" and how it forces debtor nations to cut spending on education, sanitation, clean water and health care and reorient their economies to cash crops such as coffee, cocoa and carnations as opposed to staple foods.

Recommendations are tough both on lenders and borrowers. "We need new, independent and transparent structures for governing relations between debtors and creditors," it says. "In particular, we need a new just process of arbitration for international debt cancellation, which insures that losses and gains are equally shared."

Mechanisms must be put in place "which not only satisfy requirements for economic efficiency, but also for the protection of basic human needs and rights as well as the environment. When funds are released through debt cancellation or other relief measures," it continues, "civil society organizations must be enabled to take part in determining how monies are reallocated for social priorities."

Tough conditions should be imposed on debtor governments, but these must not be prerequisite for debt cancellation, the policy says. They must be determined and monitored by local community organizations, including churches and other representatives of civil society.

Debt relief was a theme in many plenary addresses during the Assembly, and of a number of "Padares" ("meeting place" in the Shona language). About 200 persons attended one such hearing, and heard impassioned arguments for cancellation from both Africa and Europe.

Alison Wilkins, a Methodist Church delegate from Britain, representing the youth, commented that "it's practically impossible to spend a day in Britain without the force of consumerism hitting you from billboards, advertisements, even your food, drink and clothes. Some of these commodities come from Europe and America. Some come from children working to support their families, making things for export. Taxes are paid and so much goes for debt repayment that precious little is left for sanitation, health care, education....

"I have contributed to the exploitation of a country, a people, another 23-year-old woman somewhere. But it's unproductive for me to feel guilty. It's better for me to get angry....As young people at this Assembly, we have spent much time discussing the debt crisis and have heard its effects on our friends. We see debt cancellation as the first step. We have had enough. We don't want to live in systems that dehumanize us and go against Jesus' vision. Earth will not sustain our lifestyles."

People wanting change must "be prepared," she said. "The rich will become less rich and the poor much less poor." And in the event that indebted countries declare, "Can't pay, won't pay," Wilkins said, "we must support them or they will be hit by sanctions and embargoes and their children will die."

Archbishop Walter Makhulu from Botswana addressed demands both to individuals and systems in the North and to governments of indebted countries. "Cancellation is the first step toward the liberation of the poor. We should look ahead at how we affirm the poor. We can only affirm the poor by the eradication of poverty.

"If those who govern plunder the coffers of our nation, we must exercise our vote to make them accountable and transparent. The days governments negotiate huge loans without consulting the nation must come to an end. Loans must go only with the approval of Parliament."

Distinguishing between "human" and "divine" globalization, he said the former "insists on privatization, currency devaluation, reduction of government subsidies and trade deregulation....

"I hope those of you with money will think about how you can invest responsibly," the archbishop said. "Some companies are merchants of death and instruments of exploitation. They retard others' growth for their own profit.

"Retail buyers, are the people you are buying from getting a decent return? Are they paying their people a fair wage? Debt is about the poor subsidizing the rich, the poor eking out an existence when they could live if others lived more simply.

"We must agitate for the cancellation of debt," he concluded. "Then we will rediscover the divine globalization of community, generosity, sharing and mutual caring."


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