You’d think that at the age of 68 I’d have something better to do than march in the streets of Genoa facing menacing Italian polizie armed with gas masks and truncheons and the even more menacing anarchists and revolutionaries seeking opportunities to destroy property before the cameras.
But no, this time I don’t have anything better to do.
Occasionally I am moved to use my body to stand for more justice in this world – to march arm in arm with like-minded, non-violent folks. That can happen when my outrage at official abuses and the financial means mesh into a trip someplace to demonstrate for right and against wrong. I don’t do this often, you know, especially where violence may be a part of the picture. (We did march in Selma and Montegomery with Martin Luther King, Jr. nearly 40 years ago and had some scary times.)
The leaders of the wealthy G-7 nations meeting in Genoa this July will face thousands of demonstrators from many countries demanding that these powerful leaders change the world so peace and justice can prevail. Among these thousands will be those of us from the international Jubilee movement focusing on the cancellation of external debts of the world’s most impoverished countries. Under monitoring from international organizations and local civic groups, the money saved on debt servicing must be spent on education, health, and the environment.
My husband Bill and I are active in our Bay Area chapter of Jubilee USA Network, the American expression of the international movement with groups in 60 countries. (The Jubilee name comes from the biblical injunction in Leviticus to cancel the debts of all every 50 years and give a fresh start to those enslaved because of it.) These groups from the North and the South are committed to getting the crushing debt of poor countries cancelled. What is exciting about this movement is that it has caused substantive changes to be made by nations and international financial agencies. Public credit for this has been given to the pressure on politicians and decision-makers from ordinary folks and a few world figures, like the Irish rock star Bono and Pope John Paul II. We can make a difference – and have done so. In the U.S., it was a cliffhanging bipartisan effort to get the initial funding approved for debt relief last November with support from Bill Clinton and a campaign pledge from George W. Bush. There’s lots more to be done, of course.
Another incentive for involvement in this movement is a recognition that all our American generosity in sending tons of food and clothing and disaster relief funds and toilet kits to people in poor countries through local charitable organizations is offset by the millions and even billions of dollars their governments are required to send back to wealthy nations in debt payments.
For every dollar sent to the poorest countries in aid, $1.30 flows back to rich lenders in debt service payments. With incentives, their governments could put these payments into medicines, textbooks, clean water and HIV/AIDS prevention programs for their own citizens. We can change this by lobbying our legislators to do more than take just the first step approved last year.
California Congresswomen Barbara Lee and Maxine Waters with more than a dozen other co-sponsors have a bill before Congress now, H.R. 1642, “The Debt Cancellation for the New Millennium Act.” It urges the President to negotiate with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to make several changes to improve the HIPC (Heavily Indebted Poor Countries) Initiative – an Initiative that all knowledgeable experts agree badly needs changes before it continues to worsen economic conditions in eligible countries.
The more we learn from Jubilee and the United Nations about the unjust way debts were incurred generations ago in dictator-led countries and the onerous and dehumanizing conditions that are enforced today for debt payments by financial institutions on subsequent generations, the more outraged fair-minded people must become. None of the so-called industrialized countries followed these conditions during their years of economic development. Countries like Zambia, where life expectancy is now falling below 30 years old, cannot afford to spend $3.4 million each week repaying debts – and that is after receiving all the debt relief on offer from the wealthy nations. Nearly all the HIPC countries are expected to pay nearly a third of their annual revenues in debt servicing. Most of the time they borrow more money to meet the payments and with compounded interest, their burden increases beyond payable levels. If they do not also borrow capital, they cannot develop industries or maintain infrastructures in their countries. The financial picture for most of these economies has rightly been called a form of debt slavery. The powerful symbol Jubilee uses to identify this is an iron chain with a broken link; its slogan is to “Break the Chains of Debt.”
So Bill and I will be marching in Genoa on July 21, adding our bodies to the masses equally incensed at the arrogance of powerful countries (especially our own) acting like Scrooges in the world. We’ll be wearing our black tee-shirts with “Drop the Debt” on the front and, on the back, a quote from the former President of Tanzania, the late and much revered Julius Nyerere: “Must we starve our children to pay our debts?”
A. Jean Lesher is a Berkeley resident