By Gradye Parsons and Richard Cizik
The global economic crisis continues to exact a steep human cost. As we see every day in our churches around the country, our communities have endured grave hardships – layoffs, foreclosures and bankruptcy. But the desperation is greatest in the world’s poorest countries, which are burdened not only by the worldwide financial collapse, but also by crippling international debt. In the Congo, for example, the government spends 16 times more on debt service than on health care, and more than half of children don’t reach their fifth birthday.
International debt is obscure to most Americans. Many of us imagine that it’s akin to running up credit cards, or over-indulging in a materialism that leads one to the brink. Yet in the world’s most impoverished countries, crushing indebtedness is not a personal choice, but a weight born of historic injustice. Corrupt leaders colluded with international lenders and took the money for themselves. Now decades later, these countries have emerged as democracies, but continue to pay crushing debts at the expense of the most basic services for their citizens. In other words, the poorest of poor are paying for the sins of long-dead despots and unscrupulous lenders.
Scripture tells us over and over that we must respond to this type of injustice. As Christians every time we utter the Lord’s Prayer, we remind ourselves that we are called to “forgive our debtors” and “those who trespass against us”. It is part of our vision of the reign of God, where the poor are fed, the grieving are comforted and the ill are healed. This vision, set forth in the book of Isaiah, is cited by Jesus in his very first act of public ministry.
This week the Group of 20 world leaders will meet in Toronto, Canada and will have a historic opportunity to address the injustice of global poverty and debt. As the “premier forum for international economic cooperation,” the G-20 has the responsibility to make this a top priority of their upcoming meeting. Bold action, to help poor countries survive an economic crisis not of their making, is exactly what was promised when the G-20 leaders first convened last April. Yet they seem to have forgotten.
A recent report from Jubilee USA Network found that only $1.2 billion of the $50 billion in new resources promised by the G-20 has been delivered since their September summit — the same amount the Canadian government has spent on summit security. Even more worrisome, the $50 billion commitment itself has not been mentioned since April by G-20 leaders, and most of the money comes as loans that place countries at risk of a new debt crisis.
What the world’s poorest urgently need from the G-20 are grants and a strong commitment to debt cancellation. Without it, they risk falling further into an abyss of economic degradation, because every dollar they use to satisfy IOU’s to wealthy nations is a dollar they’re not spending on education, health care, clean water and other life-saving basic services for their people. Former President of Tanzania Julius Nyerere put it clearly and plaintively, asking “Must we starve our children to pay our debts?”
We’ve seen debt cancellation work where it’s been given a chance. Lifting the burden has allowed Zambia, for example, to hire 4,500 new teachers and eliminate fees for rural health care. Mozambique has been able to vaccinate half a million children, and Honduran children can now stay in school three years longer.
Sadly, the effects of indebtedness are overwhelming. Haiti, the poorest country in our hemisphere, has never been able to invest in basic infrastructure, education, health care, due in part to crippling debts that date back to its independence from France and past brutal dictatorships. When the devastating earthquake rocked its capital this past January, poorly-built infrastructure crumbled, there just a few emergency personnel who could respond. The result was catastrophic: 250,000 perished and 1 in 5 were left homeless.
But people of faith from around the world joined with us and united to call for Haiti’s debt to be canceled and world leaders listened and responded, Even in the midst of its tragedy, Haiti now stands in the light of hope – hope that world leaders will cancel the debt when we unite our voices, and hope that other countries too would no longer have to suffer under unjust debt.
Debt cancellation is what Christian work should be all about. Deuteronomy 15:2 tells us that, on the Sabbath year, “The Lord himself has declared the debt canceled.” Now, guided by both spiritual conscience and sober pragmatism, it is time for the world’s economic powers to keep their promise to the world’s poor.