African statesmen and international bankers recently met on opposite sides of the world to discuss, in part, the elimination of the crushing debt held by the world's 41 poorest nations.
Their aim was to boost spending on education, health care and social programs using money that otherwise would be spent on debt servicing.
While the impact of that debt is abstract for most of us, it is something I know firsthand.
During the 1985 famine, when activist Bob Geldof was rallying the West to raise money for starving Ethiopians, I was in Niger, a similarly affected country, placing tiny babies with parchment-thin skin onto scales they barely tipped and handing out meager foodstuffs to their hungry mothers.
It's remarkable that, despite the hardships, there was still an optimism about "development" and there was almost no crime. It was the only place I've ever lived where I felt no fear. Now, 16 years later, despite the drought ending, conditions are worse and the people are desperate. Crime is rampant and access to health care and education has fallen. In 1999, the nation's president was overthrown in a violent coup, but not, as Americans tend to believe, because the Nigerians are violent people.
If the U.S. government was unable to pay our teachers, health care workers or civil servants for nine or 10 months at a stretch because it had to hand over its limited funds to the world's wealthiest nations, how long do you think it would be before all hell broke loose?
This is the scenario all over Africa. It is made even more desperate by the AIDS/HIV pandemic, which threatens to turn the continent into a land of orphans and old people with no one left to feed them.
"It is morally reprehensive for the developed world to continue to demand repayment when we have a crisis on the continent of Africa," says Njongonkuku Ndugane, the archbishop of Capetown, South Africa.
To get a sense of why cancellation of these debts is not just necessary but the right thing to do, look to Niger's neighbor to the south, Nigeria. In 1978, Nigeria borrowed $5 billion from Western creditors. To date, it has paid back $16 billion, yet it still owes another $31 billion, thanks to compound interest and changing currencies. As a result of this situation, the struggling democracy has only $3 to spend on health care per person per year, compared to our own $4,080. Down is the only direction in this scenario.
And all our attempts to support the fledgling democracies or to negotiate the end to civil conflicts are made a mockery of as we transfer desperately needed funds from the poorest of the poor to the richest of the rich.
The G-7 nations have already agreed to drop the debt owed them. But the majority of the debt is held by the World Bank and the IMF, which so far have refused to reduce the debt by any more than meager amounts while imposing crippling restrictions that even our economy could not withstand.
It's time for these institutions to accept that these nations will never be able to pay back their debt in full, and, further, that we don't need them to. A recent report by a British independent accounting firm showed that the IMF and the World Bank can easily afford to cancel 100 percent of the debt owed them without adversely impacting their ability to carry out their objectives.
U.S. Reps. Maxine Waters and Spencer Bachus have introduced legislation to force them to do so. There is broad-based bipartisan support for debt relief and a national consensus that foreign aid (of which we give precious little) should go to helping the poorest of the poor. There are no excuses anymore.
Geldof, who is still fighting to feed Africa, recently spoke of the debt burden as "breaking the backs of the increasingly tired and defeated peoples of this beautiful, intoxicating continent."
I, too, fell in love with Africa and I worry about the people I left behind. I remember well the rows and rows of fresh unmarked graves the size of small children. I know that African mothers love their children as much as I do mine and that African children need their parents as much as my son needs me. I also remember the nation's hope.
But then, like all over Africa, uranium prices collapsed, debt payments came due, yet another natural catastrophe (too frequent on a continent with a climate more adverse than our own) destroyed the crops, AIDS came ...
I do not want their money, and I believe most Americans agree. It belongs in Africa. Shoring up collapsing educational and health care systems is the best way to help the continent, and its fledgling democracies, survive.
Lesley Reed, of Vashon, is a former African famine relief worker and Peace Corps volunteer and is a volunteer with Results, a citizens' group working to end hunger.
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