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Fasters Urge Congress to Cancel Poor Countries' Debts

Haider Rizvi

NEW YORK - A coalition of faith-based human rights groups has launched a nationwide campaign to win congressional support for legislation that would cancel debts owed by the world's poorest nations.

The campaign kicked off with a number of well-known religious leaders and activists declaring this week that they would observe 40 days of fasting and lobbying on Capitol Hill.Starting his fast Thursday, Rev. David Duncombe of Jubilee USA, a network of more than 80 antipoverty organizations, said the campaign was aimed at securing a hearing on the debt cancellation bill, also known as the "Jubilee Act."0907 01

The Jubilee Act was introduced last month by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) and Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-AL), who also sponsored a similar proposal in the last Congress.

According to campaigners, currently, indebted nations spend an average of $100 million each day simply to service their debts, an amount they could otherwise allocate for food, medicines, and education for the millions of poor in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

The Jubilee Act would require the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to cancel all debt owed by heavily indebted poor countries and also others countries included in the IMF's debt relief program.

"All the impoverished countries deserve to have their debts canceled once and for all," says Waters. Like her, Bachus argues that debt cancellation is "the right thing to do."

"For us it's a good thing because it makes the world better," says Bachus. "It makes the world more stable. It's the right thing to do for growing democracies because the great threat, I think, to democracy and freedom is poverty."

According to Jubilee USA, the latest round of debt cancellation, approved by the Group of Eight most industrialized countries (G8) in 2005 and implemented by the IMF and World Bank in 2006 has already brought about some improvements in a number of impoverished countries in Africa and Latin America.

In Ghana, for instance, the group notes that the government has increased its funding for rural development, education, and health since its debt cancellation took effect.

There are also signs of improvement in Zambia, which has hired thousands of new teachers and is providing free medical care in rural areas, whereas
in Latin America, the relatively poor nation of Honduras is now able to provide free education at the primary level.

Organizers said they anticipate more than 20,000 Americans will participate in the 40-day campaign to demand passage of the Jubilee Act.

"2007 is a Sabbath Year, a time when the Hebrew Texts and the New Testament call for an end to debt and slavery," said Anne Singer, a spokesperson for Jubilee USA, in calling for participation in the "Cancel Debt Fast."

Activists say earlier rounds of debt relief -- a result of a campaign run in 2000 and commitments made by world leaders in 2005 -- also produced meaningful results.

Citing a 2004 World Bank study, Jubilee USA says in countries that have had more access to their own resources through debt relief, poverty reduction initiatives doubled between 1999 and 2004.

According to Jubilee USA, since Tanzania received $3 billion in debt relief, it has increased funding for poverty reduction by 130 percent over the last six years. The country has eliminated fees for elementary schools and is allocating more money for education.

With debt relief savings in 2002 and 2003, Tanzania built 31,825 classrooms and the number of primary schools increased from 11,608 in 2000 to 12,689 in 2003, a net increase of 1,081 schools.

In the case of Burkina Faso, the government is spending debt relief savings on fighting AIDS, education, and access to safe water. In 2002, money freed up from debt service payments went to joint government and civil society initiatives to fight AIDS.

Debt relief has also enabled Mozambique to make strides in combating HIV/AIDS. In 2001 a national plan to fight HIV/AIDS was launched. The program is expected to slow infection rates and mitigate effects through education, prevention, support, and care.

In addition to canceling the debts of 67 of the poorest countries, the Jubilee Act would establish what Jubilee USA calls "responsible lending practices for the future." Most of today's outstanding debts result from "bad faith" lending, according to the group, which says that in many cases loans were knowingly provided to corrupt governments for political purposes.

Prominent figures joining the 40-day fast include Argentinean Nobel Laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel; John Thomas, president of the United Church of Christ; Ron Sider, founder of Evangelicals for Social Action; and Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun magazine.

© 2007

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