Liberal Clerics Fasting to End Poor Nations' Debts

Randy Hall | Staff Writer/Editor | Friday, September 07, 2007

Liberal Clerics Fasting to End Poor Nations' Debts

( - Liberal religious leaders began 40 days of fasting and lobbying Congress on Thursday in support of a bill that would cancel the debt of 67 of the world's poorest countries, because "millions of men, women, and children around the world are literally starving for debt cancellation," they said.

The Jubilee USA Network expects as many as 20,000 people to take part in the "Cancel Debt Fast," a project to promote the Jubilee Act of 2007, which would "provide for greater responsibility in lending and expanded cancellation of debts owed to the United States and the international financial institutions by low-income countries."

"Currently, indebted nations spend an average of $100 million each day to service their debts - money they cannot spend on food, education, health services and other necessities," the organization stated in a news release.

In Hebrew texts, every seventh year is a Sabbath year, when a "jubilee" is proclaimed. At that time, lands lost through debt are returned and slaves are freed.

2007 is a Sabbath year, and it is also the halfway point in a goal the U.S. committed to in 2000, when the Group of Eight (G8) countries - America, Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Italy, Canada and Russia - set a goal of cutting the world's poverty in half by 2015.

Support for the Jubilee Act, which was introduced in early June by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), brought 79-year-old Rev. David Duncombe of the United Church of Christ in Washington state to Capitol Hill.

"Most people who work on Capitol Hill never meet a starving person," he told Cybercast News Service. "In some small way, I'm doing what I can to put a living face on global poverty and starvation and represent millions of faceless, voiceless and powerless people, about 50,000 of whom die each day."

Duncombe said that he first became involved in the global poverty issue in 1999, "because I was very concerned about hunger. I learned at the time that 19,000 sub-Saharan children starved to death every day, mostly in countries that were struggling under debt."

That information "blew me apart," he said. "We look at a national tragedy like 9/11 when 3,000 people die, and yet, in the same day, 19,000 people died of starvation, and nobody cares. You don't even hear about it."

The problem began in the 1970s, when the U.S., the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had a great deal of money on hand due to the high price of oil, Duncombe explained.

In an example of what he called "unwise lending as well as unwise receiving," the leaders who were loaned the money "were mostly dictators and totalitarian kinds of people. They built their palaces with the money and put it into projects that didn't even touch the poor people.

"Now, 30 years later, their children and their children's children are saddled with this debt - sometimes amounting to a third of their national income," Duncombe said. Even though all of the money that was loaned has been paid off, these countries "just couldn't keep up with the interest."

Congress first attempted to resolve the problem by passing the Jubilee Act of 2000, which cancelled debts owed to the United States, the IMF and the World Bank by 38 countries, he said.

But "only about 20 of these nations have received significant poverty reduction because of a lot of red tape thrown up by the World Bank and the IMF," he said, while the new bill "is going to bypass all the red tape and hopefully will do a lot more in the future for these poor countries."

Duncombe indicated that while he will only ingest water until Oct. 15, others involved in the project will take part in a "rolling fast. Some will just be for a day or two, but on our first day, we already have 7,000 people signed up."

Others participating in the campaign are: Jim Wallis, CEO, Sojourners/Call to Renewal; Ron Sider, founder of Evangelicals for Social Action; John Thomas, president of the United Church of Christ; Tony Campolo, founder of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education; and Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP Washington Bureau.

However, Daniel Mitchell, senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, told Cybercast News Service that he had "mixed feelings" about the "Cancel Debt Fast" effort.

"People in Third World countries are victimized by corrupt governments that take out imprudent loans, which then are a burden to repay," he said. "But canceling debt then leads to a new cycle of poverty," he said, because leaders in these countries again seek loans they are unable to repay with the hope that those might also be forgiven.

"The real issue is that governments and international bureaucracies should cease making loans in the first place," said Mitchell. "Government-to-government aid hinders growth in the Third World by propping up statist policies."

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