Life or Debt


While the media in Seattle focused the world’s attention on cops clad in riot gear and violent protesters, one group kept clear of the melee and emerged as one of the missing links in the trade war story. On the opening day of the World Trade Organization Conference last Monday, Jubilee 2000—a global coalition of religious, labor, and antipoverty groups—marched in the rain from the First United Methodist Church to the Seattle Exhibition Center, where the gala opening reception for WTO trade ministers was being held. There, the protesters linked arms, forming a human chain. With flashlights, a few illuminated their faces, offering a spooky reminder that human beings are affected by the numerical wranglings typical of trade negotiations. They trained attention on a major gap in the WTO protest story: world debt—its relief and the ways it hinders many developing nations from improving the environmental standards and worker’s rights that many protesters fear are being eroded here in the wealthier United States as a result of WTO rulings.

Jubilee 2000’s aim is to convince the wealthiest nations (the G7—the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Germany, France, Japan, Italy) to cancel debts owed by more than 40 of the world’s poorest countries by the end of the year 2000—to break the chains of debt. In other words, the insurmountable debt owed by most developing nations keeps their economies from growing; money which in turn would have lead to higher employment, and ultimately greater concern for labor and environmental standards. At a June meeting of the G7 nations held in Germany, President Clinton agreed to support the notion of canceling 90 percent of bilateral debt. This fall he upped the ante to 100 percent. It is up to Congress to approve the full package.

Thus far, Jubilee 2000 has garnered the support of unlikely one-two combinations—rock-star and papal power in the form of U2 singer Bono and Pope John Paul II, who have met to discuss the campaign, and an oddball coalition of congresspeople from conservative Republican Spencer Bachus to liberal Democrat Maxine Waters. Though the group is multidenominational, the roots of Jubilee 2000 are found in the Hebrew Bible—specifically within Leviticus 25, which calls for a jubilee year every 50 years where all debts are forgiven, lands are returned to their owners, and slaves set free. Its members see the millennium as a rare occasion in which governments might be convinced to make a major commitment to debt relief—a one-time only act—to encourage the transformation in many poor countries from poverty to sustainable living.

“The link between debt and trade is fairly obvious,” says Seth Amgott, a spokesperson for Oxfam International, a partner in the Jubilee 2000 coalition. “If a desperately poor country is losing more teachers to AIDS per year and spending more time [and money] servicing debt than improving health and education services, their children are not going to be able to participate in the global economy.” In sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, the debt to foreign and multinational lenders now stands at over $290 billion, five times as large as the 1980 total and more than 10 percent higher than its collective GNP. Debt-service payments approach $32 billion annually, which is almost four times Africa’s expenditure on health and education combined.

In trying to make the connection between debt and trade more evident to the U.S. Congress and the media, the Reverend David Duncombe, 71, a retired minister with the United Church of Christ, underwent a 45-day hunger strike earlier this fall. The sight of his wasted body made visceral the impact of poverty. “I found it symbolically powerful to fast my way into starvation and then say I have a choice to eat again,” says Duncombe. “Chronically starving people don’t. And they’re dying in part because we haven’t passed the HR 1095 bill.”

The HR 1095 bill calls for the United States to cancel 100 percent of bilateral debt owed to the U.S. by up to 45 nations, provided that the countries use the savings to address critical needs such as education, clean water, and health care so as to promote economic growth. Congress approved this portion of the bill before recessing for the year. $110 million has been appropriated for debt relief in 2000. The bill will need to be reapproved each year until 2003. Together these nations owe the U.S. approximately $5 billion—but that represents only 3 percent of their overall debt burden. Congress did not pass an initiative calling for the relief of multilateral debt, which is the money that is owed to organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

While some protesters may have been calling for uniformly global labor and environmental standards to be implemented, many just wanted to insure that those that already exist in the U.S. will not be degraded. In most of the poorest nations, higher standards are a luxury because there is too much debt to pay off, and there is little social infrastructure to support people since there is a limited amount of money coming in from trade.

Take the issue of child labor. Who wouldn’t be against it? Yet if you talk to Mohau Pheko, a South African activist and economist who came of age during the Soweto uprising and is now a member of Africa Trade Network, you hear the degree of complication involved in uniformly condemning this practice. In one scenario, she explained, a woman loses her job when a tomato canning factory is shut down. Her husband has been out of work for five years, either because no jobs are available or perhaps he’s dying from AIDS. They have five children. A company comes to town, needs nimble young workers, and offers a job to the couple’s 12-year-old. “Now, nobody is working in that family,” Pheko says, “and there are no unemployment checks, no medicaid, no subsidized housing available. That’s an economically flawed system. I’m not going to justify children going to work, but what is that family supposed to do? Are you and I going to subsidize that family so that they have food on the table?”

What Pheko and many of the protesters were saying in Seattle is that the system—the WTO system and the economic system that allows imbalances between rich and poor nations to grow—needs reform at the deepest level. “Fair trade not free trade,” the mantra of much of the WTO opposition, means, in part, understanding how governments’ trade policies or an individual’s decision to consume a particular product influences what happens elsewhere in the world. That innocent looking Chiquita banana, the product of a multinational, may one day contribute to the shut down of a small-scale Caribbean farm.

Jubilee 2000’s efforts to pressure Congress to fully support the HR 1095 bill, and on the other wealthy nations to follow the lead of the United States in forgiving debt, will continue through the new year and to the end of 2000. On the eve of January 1, a rally will be held on the mall in Washington, D.C. In New York’s Times Square, as the millennial ball slides down its pole, Jubilee 2000 will hang “Drop the Debt” banners and drag balls and chains through the crowds. No one at Jubilee is under the illusion that a one-time cancellation of debt will lead to a dramatic transformation of economy and culture among the developing nations, but it’s one step in the multi-pronged effort to fix a deeply flawed system.

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