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By Bishop Neil Irons
Executive Secretary, Council of Bishops, United Methodist Church
I believe that God weeps with us for every one of the 29,000 children who die each day of preventable causes. Ten years ago, world leaders came together to begin a long fight against the great injustice of extreme poverty. They set out eight goals to reach by 2015 – benchmarks like reducing maternal mortality by three quarters, and counteracting environmental degradation.
Last week, President Obama joined world leaders at the United Nations in New York to review our progress toward these goals and how best to achieve them over the next five years. While some important progress has been made, we still have a perilously long way to go.
The triple global crises of the past two years – the food, fuel, and financial crises – compounded by a growing climate crisis, threaten to undermine much of the progress in the fight against poverty. The global economic crisis already forced 50 million more people into extreme poverty last year; 1.2 million more children may die before their fifth birthday than would have if the crisis hadn’t happened.
I am pleased that President Obama adopted the strong call to keep our development promises and commitments from the faith community members in the Jubilee USA movement over the last months. The president cares deeply that the most vulnerable are involved in steps to achieve the MDGs. However, President Obama missed the opportunity to include a critical piece of ending poverty in his speech- economic justice and debt cancellation.
I pray that President Obama enacts a bold – and concrete – plan in the upcoming months to bring economic justice to those who continue to suffer the most but have the least responsibility in creating these crises. With only five years left to reach these critical poverty benchmarks, world leaders must fulfill commitments made a decade ago and add new, measurable commitments to the table – including expanded debt cancellation and fundamental reform of international financial institutions.
Ten years ago people of faith around the globe mobilized around the biblical call of “Jubilee” – to cancel unjust debts and restore right relationships among nations. The global partnerships seen in 1999 and 2005 to cancel crippling debts to impoverished countries, scale up aid to the poorest, and increase transparency and accountability of governments have saved lives. In Tanzania, debt cancellation, coupled with strong government policies, meant that 1.5 million more children were able to attend school.
As a leader in the Church, I know from the 8 million United Methodists in the pews each week that many Americans are struggling. It’s understandable that some may feel that right now our country should not prioritize helping people in countries far away. Yet, people of all faith, including Christians, are called to heal the sick, clothe the naked, and feed the hungry – even when it is not easy. And, practically, the relatively small investment in debt cancellation has huge payoffs for the well-being of millions as well as our own security.
There are twenty low-income countries, such as Lesotho and Mongolia, struggling with extreme poverty, that were left out of past debt relief deals. The president could start with ensuring that the benefits of debt cancellation are expanded to these countries.
The international community must agree to binding stands of responsible lending and borrowing for countries, which include transparency for both lenders and borrowers, as well as ensuring respect for human rights, the environment, and affected communities. These standards must also apply to international financial institutions such as the World Bank and IMF, whose onerous economic conditions on debt relief and new loans have forced some countries to cut back social spending in times of crisis, leaving the poor and vulnerable without any safety net
The one billion people who go to bed hungry at night desperately need more than the platitudes and vague promises made this past week. President Obama must encourage the developed countries of the world to make concrete commitments to expand debt cancellation, end harmful economic conditions that affect the poor, and establish binding frameworks for responsible lending and borrowing.