Debt Relief's Moment

Maybe, just maybe, when Congress gets back to business after Labor Day, it will show more generosity in forgiving the external debts of the world's poorest countries.

We certainly hope so.

Some of these countries pay more on their debts than they do for education and health. Their people suffer from widespread illiteracy, declining health, a deteriorating economy.

So it is sad that in an age of extraordinary prosperity, the rich nations have dawdled and dawdled on debt relief on $90 billion owed by 33 countries with severe debt problems.

The United States ranks among the chief dawdlers.

James McDonald, vice president of Bread for the World, recalls the debt issue coming up in the mid-1980s. "It has been a long haul," he says.

But in lobbying Congress on behalf of Jubilee 2000, a coalition of 30-plus religious and other nonprofit groups campaigning for debt relief, Mr. McDonald sees "a dramatic change for the better in the last two weeks."

With the support of 26 Republicans, the House in mid-July passed an amendment to a foreign operations appropriations bill bringing debt-relief funding for fiscal year 2001 to $225 million. That was much better than the $69 million approved earlier by a subcommittee. It remains half of the $435 million the Clinton administration seeks to fulfill its commitment to the international debt-relief plan OK'd last year by the G-7 nations and reapproved in Okinawa last month by the same wealthy nations.

The amendment, offered by Maxine Waters (D) of Calif., passed narrowly 216 to 211. The Senate has voted only $75 million. Bread for the World hopes a conference committee will approve the full $435 million.

Congress should also allow the International Monetary Fund to revalue more of its gold reserves to fund its own debt-relief program for the poor countries that owe it money.

Opposition to these debt-relief efforts hangs somewhat on the general thesis that you don't pour money down a rat hole. And it's true that some African dictators and corrupt politicians, sometimes backed by the US, sent huge pilfered sums to bank accounts in Europe. Currently, some nations are wasting money on brutal warfare over diamonds or ethnic disputes.

Enough controls have now been implemented in the debt-relief program, however, that chances for huge wastage are relatively slim.

Every year, 4 million children die in sub-Sahara Africa from easily preventable malnutrition and disease. Debt relief would allow more funds to be used to combat such problems.

"The children of Africa cannot wait another year for Congress to open the purse strings," says Rev. David Beckmann, president, Bread for the World.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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