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February 25, 2000 Issue
Jubilee 2000
Open Wide the Doors

Forgiving debts of poor countries

During Jubilee Year, church leaders stress the holiness in forgiving

Second in a Renew series on reconciling

By Peter Feuerherd

Americans are accustomed to the idea that paying one's debts is a sign of good moral character.

But U.S. Catholics are hearing something different from their church leaders. They are being told that it's also holy to forgive debts.

In the spirit of the ancient Hebrew practice of jubilee (Lv 25:8-12), a time which combined repentance, forgiveness of debts, and celebration, Pope John Paul is urging developed countries to forgive, or at least lessen, what he describes as a crushing debt burden placed on poor countries.

Reducing and canceling international debt, the pope says, is a way for "Christians to raise their voice on behalf of all the poor of the world."

U.S. social activists echo those sentiments.

Mike Gable, a theology professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati, who has worked as a lay missionary in Honduras and Venezuela, predicts that "more Latin Americans will die from the effects of debt burden than from all the wars which have been fought in Central America."

Activists such as Gable point to a vicious cycle: international agencies and banks have lent large sums to poorer countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Often, these countries are unable to pay back what they owe. The lending agencies then pressure their governments to cut back on vital health and education services or raise taxes, creating an intolerable burden on the poor.

"Some of the poorest countries in the world spend a huge chunk of their annual income on debt repayment," said Barbara Kohnen, policy adviser for international economics and human rights for the U.S. bishops' Office of International Justice and Peace.

Much of the debt was accumulated to pay for needed development, such as the building of roads and schools. Some of it was used for corrupt purposes, lining the pockets of dictators and government officials. Still other governments accumulated debt to pay for military hardware.

Whatever the case, Kohnen said, the people suffer, even though in most cases they had no bearing on the original decisions.

Because of the debt burden, "the poorest of the poor have to forego health care and education," for example, said Joan Harper, of the Los Angeles Archdiocese's Justice and Peace Commission.

"There is no money for government spending on clinics in poor areas because governments have to repay debts," Harper said. "They no longer can pay for vaccinations and potable drinking water in some countries though they used to because they're paying interest on the debt."

For example, she said, "4,000 teachers are unemployed in Honduras because the government does not have the money to pay them. At the same time children are going without education. Money that should be put into education is going to pay interest on the debt. Four percent of the government money goes to health care, 4% to education and 40% to the debt."

International debt differs from individual debts, Kohnen said.

"When you borrow money to buy a house or a car, you get the benefits. But if a country borrows money, it's often not clear who gets the benefits," she said. Even individual creditors who go bankrupt are afforded some protections in U.S. law. But, she said, "there is no international bankruptcy court," so governments are unable to protect the money they should use for vital services for their people.

Just as some people do with credit cards, some governments are able to pay off only the interest on their debt, meaning the principal is never touched and the crushing debt burden never gets relieved.

Jo Marie Griesgraber of the Washington-based Center of Concern, a Catholic human rights think tank, noted that governments in indebted developing countries often are forced to open up their markets, thereby crushing local industries which are unable to compete with foreign firms. The result is increased unemployment. Another response by governments is to raise taxes, particularly sales taxes, which "fall most heavily on the poor," she said.

Social activists call upon concerned U.S. Catholics to support church leaders by writing politicians and lobbying international lending organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund, to ease the debt burden. They have also called upon Catholics who work in such institutions to examine their policies.

"We have no control over where we are born but we do have control over how our banks and economies are run," said Gable.

He urged U.S. Catholics to take seriously what they recite each Sunday in the Lord's Prayer, "to forgive us our debts as we forgive others."

(Feuerherd, former assistant editor of the Long Island Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., works with the American Bible Society in New York.)

-- Next: Bishops Take Forgiveness Message to TV

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