Debt cancellation a victory for the world

Desmond Tutu, The Baltimore Sun

Last month, the House of Representatives showed leadership in the fight against global poverty by passing the Jubilee Act for Responsible Lending and Expanded Debt Cancellation, which would extend lifesaving debt cancellation to more poor nations around the globe.

Too many of the world’s poor children needlessly starve or go without education because too many impoverished nations – even after the laudable debt relief provided to date – are still funneling scarce resources to multilateral banks instead of paying for needs at home.

The world community has found crushing debt to be akin to a modern-day apartheid, and has responded with debt cancellation. Unjust debt leaves developing nations at the behest of the powerful. Shall we let the children of Africa and Asia die of curable disease, prevent them from going to school and limit their opportunities for meaningful work – all to pay off unjust and illegitimate loans made to their forefathers?

When I think of the crisis of international debt, I think of my African neighbor, Lesotho. Many of Lesotho’s people cannot afford basic nourishment. The AIDS epidemic has plagued the nation, but needed medicine is out of reach for too many. Lesotho’s situation shows how debt and extreme poverty create a crisis for children. Children’s wards in that nation’s hospitals are filled with anxious mothers 24 hours a day, administering medicine and caring for their children as a nurse or doctor might do in my country of South Africa. They have no choice. Lesotho has only six pediatricians looking after its 800,000 children.

One-third of Lesotho’s children are not in school. Meanwhile, Lesotho’s debt repayments equal its entire education budget. Instead of investing in its people, health and development, Lesotho – a nation of 2 million people with external debt of $647 million – sends debt payments to the developed world.

Millions of the world’s poorest people suffer hunger and illness as desperately needed resources flow out of their countries in the form of debt payments. Yet many countries, like Lesotho, are not eligible for debt relief because current initiatives are not based on a country’s level of poverty or need.

Much of this debt originates from loans made to corrupt and oppressive regimes that did not benefit the population. As a South African, I know firsthand the injustice of this situation as our country continues to repay money that was used to sustain the apartheid system and suppress the movement for racial justice. The Jubilee Act calls for an audit of the odious debts of countries such as South Africa so that the question of whether this money is truly “owed” can finally be addressed.

The movement to cancel debt is an ongoing moral campaign that joins religious leaders around the globe under the biblical principle of Jubilee, which says that everything belongs to God. My own Anglican communion has long supported debt relief, calling the continued burden of debt upon the poorest people of the world “a moral scandal.”

Christian evangelical organizations, including Baptist World Alliance and the Salvation Army, have called on President Bush to support the Jubilee Act. Pope Benedict XVI, who made his first visit to the United States last month as Congress voted on the Jubilee Act, has called for debt cancellation for the poorest countries to be “continued and accelerated.”

As the Senate now considers the Jubilee Act, it can do its part to help ensure that Africans and Asians are able to use their own resources for their own development. When success comes on expanded debt cancellation, as it did with an end to apartheid, this victory will not be ours alone but will belong to the whole world.

Desmond Tutu is archbishop emeritus of Cape Town, South Africa.

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