Strides in the cause of debt relief

Other than the shared conviction that abortion is against God's will, Pat Robertson and Pope John Paul II rarely cross ideological paths. You usually don't find a conservative Southern Baptist like Rep. Spencer Bachus (R) of Alabama passionately championing progressive social causes. And before I - a Lutheran minister - stood behind Irish rocker Bono at a Washington press conference, any reference to U2 would have made me think of cold war spy planes.

But the fight to secure debt relief for the world's poorest nations has proven the sort of morally compelling cause that fosters unimaginable coalitions. Once in a great while, avid theological and political dissenters find themselves in such concert that it's hard to believe in God and not conclude that this is a worthy cause.

Last year, Bread for the World chose debt relief as our main 1999 campaign. We knew the issue was vital in developing countries; that African governments were sending four times more to international creditors than they spent on education; that children were dying from preventable malnutrition and disease because their governments were forced to cut health funding just to pay interest on debt; that we were joining a worldwide coalition - Jubilee 2000 - supported by public figures as diverse as the pope and Bono of the rock group U2.

We also knew that debt relief was an arcane issue of political economy. It was complicated, with enough acronyms - IMF, IFI, HIPC - to make the eyes of even well-informed Americans glaze over. In December 1998, debt relief was barely on the radar screen of Congress and the administration. A year later, Jubilee 2000 has much to celebrate.

In March, Rep. James Leach (R) of Iowa led a bipartisan effort to introduce the Debt Relief for Poverty Reduction Act. Mr. Bachus became its major champion, passionately articulating the issue to his colleagues and the administration. In October, Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers told Bachus that his arguments had persuaded the administration to triple its budget for debt relief.

At the Group of Seven meeting of wealthy nations in June, debt relief was placed at the top of the agenda. The group forged a new debt relief initiative focused on poverty reduction, and promised to provide deeper debt relief to more countries.

At the annual meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in September, the nations of the world agreed on a plan to cancel $90 billion in poor-country debt. The financial institutions revised their policies to focus more on poverty reduction as their primary objective in the world's poorest countries.

In October, 13 American senators from both sides of the aisle introduced a Senate version of the House debt-relief bill.

Last month, Congress appropriated $123 million to write off debts poor countries owe the US and agreed the IMF can use $2.3 billion of its own resources to write off poor-country debt. Congress stipulated that countries must "take steps so that the financial benefits of debt relief are applied to programs to combat poverty."

Granted, more should be done. Congress must approve another $850 million over the next several years to pay the full US share of the international debt-relief plan. The IMF and World Bank need to follow through on promises to work more democratically and translate debt relief into opportunity for poor people. Bread for the World and its coalition partners will continue to press Congress.

Nevertheless, the accomplishments of Bread for the World, US Roman Catholic bishops, Protestant churches, Oxfam and thousands of religious activists have been truly extraordinary.

The worldwide advances toward debt relief constitute the biggest religious news story of the year: millions of ordinary citizens in more than 60 countries raising their voices through prayer and petition in a cry for Jubilee to mark the new millennium.

* David Beckmann, a Lutheran minister and former World Bank economist, is president of the Silver Spring, Md.-based Bread for the World - a 44,000-member national Christian movement against hunger.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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