Debt relief campaign gathers momentum
by Mark Weisbrot* Star power has boosted the movement to cancel the debt of the world's poorest countries, even if there is still little to show for its efforts. At the International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings in Prague in September, the most interesting speaker was (the progressive rock group) U2's Bono, who held a press conference with World Bank President James Wolfensohn at his side. Bono was articulate and charming as a spokesman: "You'll have to excuse my shyness", he began. "I'm not used to speaking to crowds of less than 70,000 people." Bono noted that 19,000 children are dying each day, and their lives could be saved with the money that their governments now pay in debt service to wealthy foreign creditors. If these children were dying on the streets of London or New York or Paris, he said, it would be considered a holocaust. But they are in Africa and in poor countries elsewhere, so the IMF and the World Bank do not feel any great urgency to act. Wolfensohn sat quietly through Bono's speech but later told reporters that he did not agree with the rock star's demand, put forth by Jubilee 2000 and religious groups worldwide, for cancellation of the poor countries' debt. And indeed the IMF and the World Bank offered no new initiatives for debt relief at the Prague meetings. Instead they simply repeated the promises made last year to increase the number of countries getting relief under their plan for Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC). But the HIPC initiative was launched in 1996, and of 41 countries promised debt relief, only one — Uganda — has actually seen its debt service payments reduced. And for those who might follow, the conditions attached to any debt relief could well cause more economic destruction and misery than the debt itself. One of these conditions has been to impose "user fees" on formerly free public services such as primary education and health care in impoverished countries. According to a World Bank review of its Health, Nutrition and Population lending program, 75 per cent of these Bank projects in sub-Sahara Africa either established or expanded user fees. Such fees are a horrible policy, as evidenced by the enormous increases in school enrolment when they are removed: for example in Malawi, whose per capita income is less than US$200 per year, primary school enrolment jumped by 50 per cent when a small school fee was eliminated in 1994. Poor people have also suffered and even died when these fees have been imposed at health clinics. Advocates for the world's poor have taken their battle from the streets to the halls of the US Congress, in a full court press to abolish these requirements. Over 120 non-governmental organisations — including the AFL- CIO, the Presbyterian Church, and Jubilee 2000 USA — have joined in. But the US Treasury Department, which effectively controls the creditors' cartel headed up by the IMF and the World Bank, has not yet agreed to legislation that would require the United States to oppose such mandated user fees within the World Bank. The Treasury Department tipped its hand last month: one of its officials told The New York Times that the latest promises to speed up debt relief were "largely `window dressing' designed to placate protesters". A growing movement is demanding more than window dressing, and is building the organisational and political muscle to win it. Just recently, San Francisco's Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to boycott World Bank bonds, joining an international effort modelled on the successful divestment campaign that helped bring down apartheid in South Africa. The days of minority rule at these powerful institutions may also be numbered.
* * *Znet: http://www.zmag.org *Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Centre for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.