Debt Forgiveness

"And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors."

The rich, predominantly Christian, industrial nations have had a hard time putting into practice the latter part of the Lord's Prayer phrase in regard to the world's poorest countries.

Way back in 1995, when the Group of Seven industrial nations met in Halifax, Nova Scotia, they made plans for debt relief. But nations and multilateral agencies have been molasses-slow in following through.

Thirty-two countries have been classified eligible for relief under a modest World Bank and International Monetary Fund plan. These nations, most in sub-Saharan Africa, have a per capita national output of $925 or less a year. The present value of their international debts are higher than 250 percent of their annual exports.

Basically, these poverty-stricken nations have little chance of repaying their debts without disastrous domestic deprivation - shrunken education and health services, for instance.

Yet debts of only two - Uganda and Bolivia - have actually been trimmed.

Now a more generous and speedy scheme seems likely to be approved by the G-7 leaders when they meet in Cologne, Germany, in June. The creditors have been working on details at the spring meeting of the World Bank and IMF in Washington this week.

Canada, Britain, the United States, France, and Germany acknowledge the present scheme is not working well. A staff report of the World Bank and IMF, displaying sympathy toward calls for greater relief, notes: "Moral, ethical, and religious arguments show a deep concern for the suffering of the poor in these countries, and any obstacle to alleviate this suffering is seen as immoral and inconsistent with religious teaching."

In fact, religious and humanitarian organizations deserve much of the credit for pushing this issue to the point where action is likely.

Oxfam has championed debt relief for years. Pope John Paul II raised the issue when he met with President Clinton in St. Louis in January. Jubilee 2000, an umbrella group of faith-based organizations, nongovernmental groups, trade unions, and others has lobbied rich nations for debt forgiveness.

The US, for example, is owed $6.8 billion by 31 highly indebted nations. Rep. Jim Leach (R) of Iowa last month introduced a bill in Congress to provide debt relief. It would ensure that the funds released go to antipoverty programs, including education, in the beneficiary nations.

Measures like this should be passed. The time for a hard-nosed, "you-borrowed-it" attitude is past. Much of the debt was accrued by corrupt, dictatorial regimes supported by the West during the cold war. Debt relief offers these nations an opportunity to provide the education that will lift their people from the ignorance that perpetuates underdevelopment.

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