The Year 2000: A Year of Jubilee

Like everybody else, supporters of the Jubilee 2000 Coalition want to celebrate when the new millennium arrives. But over a billion people, those who live in countries with high levels of debt owed by their governments to rich Western governments and banks, will not be celebrating. While they cannot celebrate neither can we.
The original inspiration for the Jubilee 2000 Coalition comes from the Bible. In the Book of Leviticus Chapter 25 God calls on the people of Israel to periodically re-order their society so as to restore balance and justice to a community that had suffered economic and social degradation. Once every seven-times-seven years, that is, every fifty years, they were called upon to cancel debts, free slaves and restore the land to its rightful owners. They were to sound the trumpet and declare liberty throughout the land. The Hebrew word for trumpet is Jubel and this is the origin of our word ‘jubilee’. The concern of the Jubilee 2000 Coalition is for a new world, one in which some balance, order and justice is restored. One of these disorders is the crushing weight of international debt.
People are often unaware of how international debt seriously damages the lives of people in countries affected by it. For a start, there is no international bankruptcy law. Even if a country like Sierra Leone, Rwanda or Burundi are bankrupt the debts and interest on these debts continue to pile up. Scarce resources needed for health, education and safe water have to be diverted to pay debts either to rich creditors like UK, Germany, USA and Japan or else to institutions dominated by them.
Comic Relief are very proud of the £26 million they raise every second year to send to poor people in Africa. They were shocked to find out that every day, the poor of sub-Saharan Africa send back £24 million in debt repayment. For every £1 the West as a whole gives to the developing countries, £3 comes straight back in the form of debt repayments.
You or I may not like having to pay back the loans we have taken out but, at least, we did sign a contract. The poor of Zaire were never asked if they agreed with any of the £5 billion-plus loans made to their corrupt dictator Mobutu by the well-dressed bankers and civil servants of The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the British Treasury and the US Department of Finance. But they are the people who today are being forced to pay the debt.
Zaire got into difficulties, the banks, led by the IMF, were only too glad to offer new loans to pay off old loans. The debt rose and the lenders got richer.
There are some parallels between our kinds of debts and those of the poorest countries. Homeowners occasionally discovered something called ‘negative equity’. This is when the sum of their debt to the building society or bank is greater than the value of the home they bought with the loan. Even the sale of the home would not pay off the debt. And so they suffered the horrors of re-possession, when the banks moved in and took possession of their homes.
poor countries have had a somewhat similar experience. The value of the commodities that earned them the money to pay off the debts incurred fell dramatically, especially in the 1980s. International debts cannot be paid off in Zambian Kwacha or Mozambican Meticals. They must be paid in dollars or sterling. These ‘hard’ currencies can only be obtained by exporting goods to the international market. But when the prices poor countries were paid for products like tea, coffee, copper and sugar fell dramatically many got into serious difficulties and the banks, particularly the IMF, moved in.
As a condition for bailing out these debtor countries the IMF in effect took ‘re-possession’ of their economies by imposing “Structural Adjustment Programmes”. These require cuts in government spending, cuts in jobs and services, removal of subsidies.
They also force governments into privatizing local national assets like airlines or communications which are often snapped up by powerful foreign companies. This re-possession of the economies of poor countries by rich Western creditors leads to a new kind of colonialism, a new kind of slavery.
The Jubilee 2000 Coalition says this is a profoundly unjust state of affairs and is calling for a one-off cancellation of the unpayable backlog of debts of the poorest countries by the year 2000. An aim of the Coalition also is to change the way loans are given, to impose discipline, honesty and transparency on lenders as well as borrowers.
The Coalition, both in Britain and Ireland, is collecting signatures for what we hope will be the biggest petition in the history of the world. We need your help to collect those signatures. We will be taking that petition to the annual meeting of the G7 (the name given to the richest creditor countries) in Birmingham on 16 May 1998. The intention is to surround the meeting with a massive human chain of thousands of people. The theme will be Make a chain to break the chains (of debt and slavery). We are also prepared to take our petition to Berlin in 1999 and Tokyo in 2000.
We are working together with a wide range of organisations like CAFOD, Christian Aid, SCIAF and Trócaire to achieve our goal. We have made contacts and found supporters in 60 countries around the world. No matter where you are there is a good chance that there is a group of Jubilee 2000 supporters nearby. Join them if you want a real reason to party on New Year’s Eve 1999.

©: Joan Pettifor, Director of the Jubilee 2000 Coalition, PO Box 100, London SE1 7RT. Reprinted, with permission, from Far East (The magazine of the Columban Missionaries), January / February 1998.

Editor’s Note 1:

The Jubilee 2000 Petition form states:

We, the undersigned, believe that the start of the new millennium should be a time to give hope to the impoverished people of the world.
u To make a fresh start, we believe it right to put behind us the mistakes made by both lenders and borrowers, and to cancel the backlog of unpayable debts of the most impoverished nations.
We call upon the leaders of lending nations to write off these debts by the year 2000. We ask them to take effective steps to prevent such high levels of debt building up again. We look for a new beginning to celebrate the millennium.

The form summarises the argument with the words:

“Debt kills the earth and the poor. The debt burden is a major factor in perpetuating poverty. Development has been halted and reversed by the debt service obligations of some of the poorest counties…”

Editor’s Note 2:

Sadly the leaders of planet Earth at their meeting in Birmingham entirely failed to offer even sweet words to the poor and the marginalised. The burden of debt remains. We need to continue the campaign for the cancellation of the burden of unpayable debts that cripples much of the Third World. This will be a much more worthy and economically viable way to celebrate the end of the Second Millennium and to usher in the Third than happy-clappy projects such as the Millennium Dome.

Published in The Green Dragon No 7, Summer 1998.