Speakers highlight plight of poor in debt-ridden countries

Diana Oleszczuk
The Daily Northwestern
October 19, 2005

While living in Kenya, Wahu Kaara has seen mothers die because they could not reach the hospital in time to deliver their babies.

She said she has seen young people who “cannot dream their dreams.” She has seen the gap between the rich and the poor become “frightening,” and she has seen people die from lack of food.

“When we are talking about debt burdens, we are talking about death,” Kaara said to about 40 people in Annenberg G15 Tuesday night. “I have no doubts in my mind that we live in a very, very unjust world.”

International debt has contributed to reduced spending on social services in impoverished countries such as Kenya and Indonesia, Kaara said.

Kaara, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 and plans to run for election in her country in 2007, teamed up with Kusfiardi St. Majo Endah, the director of the Anti-Debt Coalition in Jakarta, Indonesia. Northwestern’s chapter of Americans for Informed Democracy and Jubilee USA, an organization that works to alleviate global debt, sponsored the presentation. The speakers are part of a tour to promote a Congressional bill to alleviate debt in 50 impoverished countries.

Before Kaara spoke from her own experiences, Endah presented a PowerPoint of statistics to explain the situation in Indonesia.

Since the tsunami in 2004, Indonesia’s national debt has reached $130 billion, 90 percent of their gross domestic product, Endah said. High interest rates contributed to the debt.

This debt is “odious” because about $30 billion was lent to Gen. Haji Mohamed Suharto, a former Indonesian president who stole up to $10 billion in World Bank aid for his personal accounts, Endah said.

A financial crisis in 1997 compounded the problem, Endah said. Social spending has fallen by 40 percent since then. As a result, one in three Indonesian children under 5 years old are malnourished. A third of the population has no access to health service or safe sanitation and has not completed primary school, he said.

“We look at this as a systemic failure,” Endah said. “We need to work together to solve this problem.”

The market paradigm doesn’t listen to the concerns of everyone, Kaara said.

“There is no reason why every three seconds a child should be dying in Africa,” she said. “This conspiracy of doing business at the price of human life has got to change.”

Both Endah and Kaara responded to questions from the floor, such as why the United States should be responsible for the debt and how debt cancellation could help with problems within a government ruled by elites.

“I thought it was a perfect combination of statistics and passion,” said political science Prof. Jeffrey Winters, who asked the question about government elites.

In Kaara’s “debt is death” speech, “she got across an important point that could have taken a whole day (of conferences),” Winters added.

Communication sophomore Becca Donaldson said she thought Endah presented a more convincing argument because of the statistics, but she also found Kaara inspiring.

“I thought she was one of the most amazing public speakers I’ve ever seen,” she said.

But Donaldson wasn’t completely convinced by either speaker, she said, because neither one talked about any of the negative consequences of debt cancellation. However, biased perspectives are what audience members expect at this type of speech, she said.

She said Kaara charged students with the responsibility to help in “globalizing hope.”

“We want to invest in our own people,” she said. “We want to be in charge of our own lives.”

Categories: Africa, Debt Relief, Odious Debts

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