Forgiving Their Debts

In ancient Israel, a jubilee year was a time to build the kinds of social relationships expected of God’s people. It was the season to liberate slaves who lost their freedom through debt and return land to those who had sold it to pay off debts. It was a year to erase debts altogether. So it is written in the Hebrew Scriptures, most descriptively in the Book of Leviticus (Chapter 25). Actually, biblical scholars can find no evidence that ancient Israel ever practiced this social ethic. One can imagine the Israelites having their own economists who told the prophets: "What are you guys, crazy? If we write off debts every 50 years, we’ll never get our economic house in order."

That bit of biblical redaction hasn’t kept modern moralists from blasting the jubilee horn. Last year, a heavy-metal coalition featuring Pope John Paul II and rock stars like U2’s Bono demanded that rich nations lift a page from Scripture and forgive the debts of the poorest countries at the break of the third millennium. The creditor nations, minding ledgers over Leviticus, have not written off the international debt. They also have not beaten their swords into plowshares or vowed to love their enemies, to cite other counsels of social perfection. Still, the papal-Bono alliance has already managed a minor miracle in the unforgiving global economy.


The impoverished countries, hemorrhaging more in debt payments than they spend on health and education, are hauling their external debts into the third millennium. The load, however, promises to be lighter than anyone would have predicted at the start of last year, and some countries will see most of their debts washed away. In this accounting, credit goes to what President Clinton hailed as the "big tent" of spiritual leaders and celebrities who have formed an unlikely jubilee band. Their singular feat in the United States was watershed debt-relief legislation passed in November, against all odds, by a Republican-controlled Congress.

This eclectic movement has taken a gratifying leap toward absolute debt forgiveness, a goal that would have seemed impractical if not loony a few years ago. Rebuffing such initiatives in the past, international lending agencies argued among other points that third world dictators would squander the savings, by pouring them into the military sinkhole. They might have done this, but many of the strongmen are now gone, and anyway the new measures demand that debt savings go to human needs. Beyond the debt question, the struggle has showcased the ripening role of civil-society institutions, in this case, churches and aid agencies, in global economic decisions. It has also brought a timely intrusion of moral and theological ideas, pealing with biblical metaphors, into the temples of international finance.

The political balance sheet flipped over in the second half of 1999. Jubilee campaigners began the year rivaling the Hebrew prophets in their vexation with the world. They denounced the debt as a slayer of children, who go without basic health services in developing countries because of uncontrolled debt and austerity policies. Three years ago, they booed when the International Monetary Fund unveiled the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative, jeering what they called the too-little-too-late approach to debt relief. Last June, meeting in Cologne, Germany, the G-7 nations made the initiative more generous, but not generous enough for the increasingly restive Leviticus crowd. Wired together by the Internet, a feisty alliance called Jubilee 2000, or J2K, marched in Western capitals and collected 17 million signatures on petitions.

The breadth of this crusade was highlighted when Pope John Paul rolled out a welcome for pop stars and economists with the London-based J2K. During the meeting on Sept. 23, 1999, Bono saluted the pope as a "holy man and a showman." John Paul played alonghe tried on the U2 star’s famously funky "flash glasses." He congratulated the campaigners but said, "We have to ask...why progress in resolving the debt problem is still so slow. Why so many hesitations? Why the difficulty in providing funds needed even for the already agreed initiatives? It is the poor who pay the cost of indecision and delay."

A few days later, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank cranked up the Cologne initiative to provide about $90 billion of debt relief to several dozen desperately poor countriesroughly half what they owe. Then, President Clinton announced a commitment to cancel unilaterally 100 percent of the debt owed to the United States by those countries (predominantly in sub-Saharan Africa). The source of the prodding was scarcely in doubt. For two years, religious and nongovernmental organizations such as the U.S. Catholic Conference and Oxfam America had engaged the financial institutions in a dialogue on debt. At a press conference on Oct. 22, Clinton took note of the J2K meeting with Pope John Paul, which also featured a videotaped message of support from the evangelist Billy Graham. "Now, this is a campaign with a broad base. It’s being spearheaded by the pope and Bono.... And even though I am not a candidate for anything anymore, I can spot a big tent when I see it," he said.

The most unexpected thing happened in mid-November. The Wall Street Journal had prophesied the defeat of debt-relief legislation. Jubilee forces, however, materialized for one last lobbying burst of the millennium. American bishops, during breaks at their annual meeting in Washington, dialed up members of Congress and the administration. Bono, who is Irish, spent hours in crunch meetings on Capitol Hill. In a turnaround, the Republican leadership agreed to back the Clinton administration’s commitment of 100-percent debt relief (for the eligible countries), though with only enough funding for the first yearly installment. Equally important, Congress gave necessary approval to the Cologne initiative, which also requires debt-relieved nations to parlay the savings into programs for critical needs such as AIDS prevention and treatment. Topping off the year, Britain pledged at millennium’s eve to join the 100-percent club of debt forgivers, following the United States and Canada.

Debt resisters have gotten this far by animating and enlarging the terms of debate. In a language distinct from "structural adjustment" and "stability," they speak of "ending debt bondage" and "putting life before debt." Rhetoric aside, the ethical and biblical themes have established a distinct horizon of analysis, though not a simple and direct line of policymaking. As acknowledged by the U.S. bishops, the moral presumption is that nations should pay their debts, a premise of commutative or transactional justice. The presumption, however, opens to a broader accounting of social and distributive justice. This involves an inventory of circumstances: the undeniable fact that the poor, who are the victims of debt, had nothing to say about the borrowing and gained little or nothing from it.

The sturdiest argument against the debt regime has rested on the principle of co-responsibility, the fact that both hemispheres caused this predicament. Rich nations often made loans they knew would not be paid back, sometimes to make friends during the cold war or to subsidize Western exports. Poor countries often wasted the money through corruption, militarism and mismanagement. While circumstances call for a sharing of sacrifices, in reality the poor of debtor countries have paid the ghastly price. In Uganda, for example, the government spends three dollars per person annually on health and education, compared with 17 dollars on debt payments. Meanwhile, one in every five Ugandan children dies from preventable diseases before reaching age five.

Co-responsibility cries out for solidarity, mutual efforts to restore balance in relationships between rich and poor countries. In that sense it points beyond debt (hardly the only hindrance to development) to kindred issues such as inequitable trade rules and economic adjustment policies. Creditor nations have begun to acknowledge, grudgingly or otherwise, their co-responsibility. They have also taken a hard look at the status quo: lending poor nations more money simply to service old loans. Clinton administration rhetoric has reflected this mixture of morality and pragmatism. "Writing down debts that will never be paid reflects economic logic. It is also a moral imperative for the world’s richest economy," Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers wrote in The Washington Post on Nov. 3, 1999.

No one should sneer at the surviving arguments against absolute debt forgiveness, including the so-called "moral hazard" fears about encouraging future debtors to shirk their obligations. In general, though, ideas are running out for business as usual, and that makes debt campaigners think they can go all the way this jubilee year. In the near term, they want deeper debt relief, expanded to more countries. The prize is cancellation of all "unpayable" debtdebt that will never be paid, or will be paid only at an unacceptable human cost. It is possible that the millennial energies behind the cause will dissipate in 2000. It is more likely that the movement will surface on the bigger battlefield of globalization. It already has done so, if one can judge by the thick presence of J2K activists among the peaceful protestors at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle late last year.

The social imperative of the early 21st century is to sell the jubilee ethic of justice and solidarity to the global economy and culture. In ancient Israel, a jubilee year was proclaimed as a time not only for forgiving debts, but also for letting the land rest and for sharing among all whatever it yielded naturally. It was a reminder that God is the ultimate titleholder, and the riches of creation are intended for all his children ("for the land is mine, and you are but aliens who have become my tenants"Lev. 25:23). In doctrinal form, this is known as the universal destination of goods, which fixes a social mortgage or claim on all property, tangible or intellectual. It is not collectivism, which has never produced enough wealth to distribute. Universal destination calls, rather, for a broader view of wealth and a robust array of forces and institutions to countervail pure capitalism.

The anti-debt crusade, which seemed almost utopian a few years ago, has given us a useful sketch of that new global vision. As the pope suggested recently, the jubilee year campaign might well serve as a "credible sign of a new way of understanding wealth in terms of the common good."

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