Campaign to cancel debt heats up

By on March 1, 1999
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Jubilee coalition officials Alejandro Bendana of Nicaragua, left, Rev. Molefe Tsele of South Africa and Helen Wangusa of Uganda, in Toronto to meet with Canadian organizers, discuss the grassroots movement to ease the debt burden of poor countries.

Being freed of their debt to rich countries won’t solve all poor nations’ problems, but it will give them a fighting chance to rebuild economically, say church representatives from some of those countries.

Representatives from Nicaragua, Uganda and South Africa met with Canadian counterparts last month in Toronto to work on an international ecumenical campaign to persuade rich countries to forgive the debt owed them by the poorest ones.

Known as the Jubilee Initiative or Jubilee 2000, the idea is based on the biblical concept of a 50-year anniversary when debts of all kinds are cancelled. This is mentioned in Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15, although it is unlikely such events ever took place.

Ironically, a common hurdle in poorer Southern Hemisphere countries has been trying to overcome the perception that Jubilee 2000 is an idea imposed by the North.

In heavily indebted Nicaragua, Jubilee 2000 has been launched successfully, thanks in part to its endorsement from the country’s right-wing president, said Alejandro Bendana, director of the Center for International Studies in Managua. Getting the presidential seal of approval, he said, removed the aura of radicalism that initially surrounded the effort.

Interest in Jubilee 2000 has come from Nicaragua’s evangelical and mainline Protestant churches, in addition to the dominant Roman Catholic Church – all “in a context where religion has been an instrument of change and reflection.”

In the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch, Jubilee 2000 gained momentum, Mr. Bendana said. The campaign is already having a political effect, but as yet, little or no influence on policy or individuals in his country. He explained that the campaign needs more moral, ethical and religious reinforcement. Mr. Bendana lauded the Canadian Jubilee effort for emphasizing the biblical context on the issues surrounding international debt.

The issue, said Mr. Bendana, involves not only the cancellation of debt, but also an examination of the processes surrounding our notions of indebtedness and the process of enrichment. In Nicaragua, he explained, debt cancellation is the just start in the long road to democracy.

In Uganda, there was resistance to Jubilee because it was seen “as a northern thing and a Catholic thing,” said Helen Wangusa, a member of the Ugandan Jubilee 2000 process. The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops endorsed the campaign late last year.

She said the campaign didn’t catch on at first. “It sounded like a celebration. We need liberation. Liberation speaks more to our needs than celebration. We are ready for liberation. We want to straighten out.”

Nevertheless, said Ms. Wangusa, many Ugandans still wonder whether Jubilee “is our thing.” They wonder about the future even if the country’s debt is cancelled. She said people want to know what will stop the government from more borrowing again and creating more debt in the future.

“Only the poor can come out with this idea,” half-joked Rev. Molefe Tsele of South Africa. Mr. Tsele is executive director of South Africa’s Ecumenical Service for Social and Economic Transformation and chair of his country’s Jubilee 2000 campaign.

“But deep down, we want to believe that it’s an idea that comes from the God of Exodus and the Bible. (Jubilee) speaks to the poor and to the South. It is inseparable from the notion of a compassionate God.” And so, in South Africa, Jubilee “has struck a nerve.”

Mr. Tsele said Jubilee 2000 in his country goes beyond monetary debt, extending to social, ecological and generational debt.

But while South Africans can buy into the concept of Jubilee 2000, they are also feeling burdened by the long battle over apartheid and the effects of years of international trade sanctions.

“In a very sad way, there’s a growing realization that younger generations in South Africa will never experience a better life than their parents,” he told the meeting. “Many (black Africans) are simply resigned to permanent landlessness.”

The Jubilee campaign in South Africa has also had to overcome the perception of being imposed by the North, and it was even was resisted by the churches, said Mr. Tsele. But now, there’s dialogue with charismatic and evangelical churches, he said.

In Canada, the campaign has also provided a practical benefit, said a member of the Jubilee 2000 working group.

Lee Cormie, a professor at the faculty of theology at St. Michael’s College, said he believes the Canadian Jubilee initiative has saved Canadian churches from “a growing sense of a loss of direction,” providing a badly needed focus in Canadian churches.

Mr. Cormie, who recently met with delegates from some of the countries involved, said the campaign, launched in September, “has dropped like manna from Heaven. It’s a retrospective birthday party for Christians – a symbol of hope for a new beginning. Wealth isn’t what it once was. It has to be redefined.”

The three international representatives also held daylong talks at Church House. They met with members of a working group formed by more than 30 Canadian churches, ecumenical organizations and social justice groups.

Susie Henderson, of the Primate’s World Development and Relief Fund, and a member of the Jubilee working group, said interest in the campaign is gaining momentum in Canada, both in churches and within social justice groups across the country. Hearing the stories from her international colleagues, she said, helps fuel the campaign here at home.

“A lot of Anglican parishes in Canada are starting petitions calling for debt cancellation,” she said. In the diocese of New Westminster, for example, parishes are being encouraged to collect signatures on Jubilee 2000 Debt Cancellation petitions. These will be gathered together and collected during a Palm Sunday procession in the diocese. Similar petition collections will happen in dioceses across the country. These collections will be massed with thousands of others and presented to world leaders at this June’s G-8 economic summit in Cologne, Germany.

Ms. Henderson said support for the campaign has exceeded the organizers’ wildest expectations. While it is somewhat surprising, she sees it as an attempt to mark the coming of the year 2000 in a meaningful way that will extend well beyond next year.

“This is not just another political campaign,” she said. “The biblical concept of celebrating Jubilee is an important merger of justice and spirituality. It really is a call to be open to the renewal that can happen in that.”

Coping with a heavy debt burden further impoverishes nations, said Ms. Henderson, and challenges governments to provide citizens with even the most basic human necessities. It is, she said, a situation that often defies logic.

“People don’t even expect them to pay,” she said. “Cancelling these debts cleans up the books, but it is a long haul between there and economic justice.”

Joy Kennedy, of the Anglican Church of Canada’s economic justice department, is a member of the Jubilee 2000 International campaign committee. She acknowledges that changing world economic policies isn’t easy, nor can it be done by January 2000.

The Jubilee 2000 initiative isn’t really about meeting timelines, she said. It is more about recognizing that change is necessary. She added this is a chance for those in the Northern Hemisphere to carefully examine our relatively privileged lifestyles to determine how much is really enough.

“There’s a time for everything under heaven,” she said. “This is the time for stopping the cycles and spirals of poverty.”

Ms. Kennedy said Jubilee 2000 helps establish dialogue about the global issues surrounding poverty, while providing people with a chance to act locally by signing a petition or participating in a workshop.

“There is an opportunity here not only to cancel debts, but also to have conversations about what well-being looks like,” she said. “What would it take to build what I like to call a kingdom of God where people everywhere have enough to eat, a warm place to live and a good education?”

Jubilee 2000 resource materials, which are being shared by several Christian churches in Canada, are available through diocesan offices across the country and through the PWRDF office in Toronto.