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US Congress to Address Poor Country Debts

Haider Rizvi

NEW YORK - The U.S. House of Representatives is likely to endorse a legislative proposal this week calling for the cancellation of debts owed by some of the world's poorest countries.0415 07

The rights advocacy groups that have lobbied hard for the passage of the Jubilee Act for Responsible Lending and Expanded Debt Cancellation told OneWorld they had no doubts that a vast majority of lawmakers will vote in favor.

"We have very strong support in the House," said Danielle Pals of the Jubilee USA Network, an umbrella group representing more than 80 religious denominations, development agencies, and human rights organizations from across the United States.

The Jubilee USA Network has been trying to convince U.S. lawmakers to pass the proposed legislation on debt cancellation for a long time. Like many other anti-poverty advocates, the group holds that the lending practices of international financial institutions are mainly responsible for the suffering of the poor in developing countries.

The House is expected to vote on the proposed bill this week, which coincides with the International Monetary Fund (IMF)/World Bank annual meeting, which was held this weekend in Washington, DC. The bill was already endorsed by the House Financial Services Committee earlier this month.

"We welcome the strong bipartisan committee support for this forward-looking legislation which, when passed, will help to ease the unjust burden of debt on some the world's most impoverished nations," said Jubilee's national coordinator Neil Watkins.

The proposed legislation calls for "greater responsibility" in lending and borrowing in the future. Supporters of the bill say current lending practices are hampering development initiatives in many countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

The legislation calls on the U.S. Treasury Department to negotiate at the IMF and World Bank for an agreement for debt cancellation for up to 24 additional poor countries that need financial help to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set by world leaders in 2000.

The MDGs include a 50-percent reduction in poverty and hunger; universal primary education; reduction of child mortality by two thirds; cutbacks in maternal mortality by three quarters; the promotion of gender equality; and the reversal of the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases.

If adopted by the U.S. Congress, the bill introduced by by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) and Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-AL) would expand eligibility for 100-percent debt cancellation without harmful economic conditions to 67 impoverished countries in the global South.

Last October, the Jubilee Act was also introduced in the Senate by Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN), and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT).

The proposed act prohibits the imposition of harmful economic and policy conditions as a condition of debt cancellation and calls for a new legal framework to restrict the activities of so-called "vulture funds," the private companies that have been accused of debt profiteering at the expense of the world's poorest people.

The act also mandates transparency and responsibility in lending from governments and international financial institutions.

Last September, scores of activists who supported the Jubilee Act participated in fasts for more than a month, moving a number of lawmakers on both sides of the political divide.

Jubilee claims that more than 20,000 Americans participated in its 40-day fast campaign calling for the cancellation of debt owed by the poorest nations.

Currently, indebted nations spend an average of $100 million each day simply to service their debts, an amount that, according to groups like Jubilee, is more than enough to provide food, medicines, and education for the millions of poor in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

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

"For [the United States] 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."

© 2008 One World

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