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Tough Love for Debtors

October 1, 1999



You're so deep in credit-card debt, you may never pay it off. But hey, say your friends, it's close to the millennium - 'tis the season for forgiveness. So you plead with creditors for mercy.

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And what do you get?

If you were Mozambique or Bolivia or a few dozen other poor nations in a similar sinking boat, you might like the news - or you may not.

For one, you can expect to be forgiven the official debt that creditor-nations didn't expect to collect anyway - assuming those nations live up to promises made this week.

But then, this seeming act of charity - including $5.7 billion of debts that President Clinton wants to cancel - comes with strings that might feel like straitjackets.

You'll need to reform your profligate ways by not spending the remaining borrowed billions on such things as weapons, big homes for corrupt officials, or pork-barrel projects for the elite.

And what's more, bureaucrats from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) - an agency not used to being social workers - will make sure you put the money into teaching people how to read, eradicating AIDS, and providing health care for children.

The World Bank, meanwhile, will be stingy in any new loans unless you clean up your government by making leaders accountable, decisionmaking transparent, and bribery a crime worth ending.

Break any of these conditions, and the debt-monkey might be put on your back again.

All this is the new tough love that rich nations, under pressure from global activists, have slowly come around to accept and are beginning to mete out, mainly in Africa.

On Wednesday, Mr. Clinton gave this effort a boost with a debt-relief pledge - which requires money from Congress. His pledge may nudge France and Japan to follow suit.

Forgiving debt isn't easy in the world of high finance. It can breed repeat offenders.

But the gap between rich and poor nations has grown so wide and the world has changed so much since the cold war that even IMF's lenders have become convinced.

Forgiveness, after all, can really be understood as "to give as before."

And almost any credit-card vendor knows that it's better to give fresh loans than sit on unpaid ones.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society