Bishops at Lambeth Conference push initiative on international debt

September 2, 1998

International debt and economic justice were at the top of nearly everyone's agenda as 750 bishops gathered for the 13th Lambeth Conference. Even though sexuality grabbed the headlines, the economic issues are life-and-death matters for Anglican bishops from the developing world and they infused the conference with a sense of urgency.

Even before Lambeth, Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane of Southern Africa had emerged as the major spokesperson for the issue. In several key speeches he called for a new partnership between the developed and the developing worlds that would reflect their mutual dependence.

"International debt is the new slavery of the 20th century," he said in introducing the report of the section dealing with the issue, which he chaired. "The human costs of the international debt burden is intolerable. Its effects are evil and sinful."

The discussion quickly moved beyond abstractions as bishops offered personal testimonies of the effects of the debt trap. A bishop from Zambia said that the rural poor of his country are lucky to have one meal a day and the extended family is breaking down in the struggle to survive. Many children take to city streets to beg in an effort to help.

"We are not asking for debt forgiveness, we are asking for justice," said Archbishop Alberto Ramento of the Philippine Independent Church. He said that 40 percent of the Filipino budget goes to service the country's $46 million debt. Much of the debt was incurred during the corrupt Marcos regime. "We are paying for the shoes of Imelda Marcos," he said.

Developing countries are "fighting a war," Ramento said. "We are fighting to live with dignity and cannot win this war because we do not have the power to win it on the streets of Manila alone. But it can be won in the streets of London and Washington by those who have the power."

Several bishops pointed to the underlying economic order as a major source of the problem. "Debt cancellation will not change anything long-term; there is a need for a new economic order," argued Bishop Luiz Osorio Prado Pires of Brazil. He is convinced that it will be necessary to change the underlying unjust global structures for people to become fully human. Those who are living a privileged life are not interested in change, he said, and "they support the World Bank and the IMF and share their priorities. But their priorities are not ours…. We see in horror the fruits of our work being used just to pay the interest on the debt."

World Bank president calls for new level of cooperation

A 20-minute film by Christian Aid, introducing the issue at a plenary session, was highly critical of the World Bank. Its president, James Wolfensohn, flew to England to address the plenary and expressed his dismay at how the World Bank was portrayed, calling it "difficult to take and very unattractive."

In an emotional response, he said that the film "would have you believe that I rather like children dying, that I have no faith, that my interest is to collect debts, that I have no understanding of education or health, that I know nothing about the impact of payments imposed by governments…."

Wolfensohn said he was "upset" because the film painted "a picture of our institution which is quite simply wrong. I work with 10,000 people in the bank who are committed to poverty eradication. We do not get up every morning and think what we can do to ruin the world." He said that he and the bank's employees "work to try to make the world a better place" because they care.

According to Wolfensohn, the 180 countries which support the bank have cut assistance from $60 billion to $45 billion in the last seven years and he called on the bishops to "give pressure to governments because they are the source of this fund." He warned, based on his travels to 80 countries, "We are losing the battle."

He called on the bishops to move beyond confrontation "because I am doing many of the things that the church wishes to do and should do itself.… Let's see what we can do together." He concluded by asking the bishops to work with the bank "to focus on the kids that are dying, and on the children who are not being educated and on the horrors of poverty together."

Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey convened a historic meeting of nine world faiths with Wolfensohn at Lambeth Palace in London last February to find better ways of working together.

Carey has endorsed the idea of a Jubilee Year in 2000, based on the biblical precedent described in Leviticus 25 in which every 50 years the people of Israel were commanded to return land to its original owners and free slaves. He says that the year is especially appropriate because Christians "will be celebrating the 2000th anniversary of the birth of the one who brought us life, hope and peace." An international campaign has been spreading through Britain, Austria, Germany and several African nations, including Ghana and Kenya. It is estimated that the unpayable debt is at least $100 billion, although other estimates suggest it is closer to $200 billion.

"Now is the time to pull out all the stops and to harness the energy of a world that, once in a century, seems prepared to use the opportunity of the new millenium to do something that is morally and ethically right—that is the cancellation of the debt," said Ndungane.

Bishops meet with government leaders

A high-level meeting of a delegation of bishops and British government leaders was set up by Carey at Lambeth Palace in London and included Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown and Secretary of State for International Development Clare Short, as well as diplomats from Canada, Germany and Russia and senior representatives of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and international banks.

Participants stressed the urgency of the situation in heavily indebted countries, and the moral case for change, as well as attempting to identify policies which would link debt reduction with effective long-term policies for economic and social development and the eradication of poverty.

According to reports emerging from the closed meeting, it was not a case of morality and economics opposing each other but rather a mutual attempt to establish a moral economics.

Chancellor Brown promised the bishops that Britain would step up its efforts to tackle the "mountain of debt" in response to the pleas and arguments of the churches. "I believe our inescapable duty is to try to ensure by the year 2000 all highly indebted poor countries are embarked on a systematic process of debt reduction," he said. Bishops reported that Brown credited the churches with pushing the debt issue to the top of the agenda in a way that would not have happened otherwise.

Prime Minister Tony Blair told the bishops at a Lambeth Palace luncheon that "the new global challenges are problems that we solve together as one global community—or not at all." He said that it was clear to him that "the British people do want Britain to provide a lead in the international efforts to eliminate poverty."

No moral free lunch

"We thought it critical to put a resolution before you that was not a moral free lunch… not an exhortation to other people to do something but one that affected our lives as churches and as a communion," said Bishop Peter Selby of England whose subsection wrote the report and resolution on international debt.

It is "a scandal" that developing nations pay up to 10 times as much each year in debt repayment as they receive in aid from wealthier nations, said the report. Much of the problem stems from the "vast expansion" in the power and amount of money and the material and spiritual damage done by the huge increases in borrowing.

"The crisis of indebtedness… must be placed in the context of decisions by Western banks in the 1970s to disburse, rapidly and widely, petrodollar loans as a way of averting a crisis of inflation in the West," the report said. As the debt crisis developed, the IMF and World Bank offered loans with low interest and extended repayment to help service those loans. "By the mid-90s it had become clear that these loans were adding to the problem."

The report and its resolution call on church leaders to join political and economic leaders in creditor and debtor nations to monitor the situation, perhaps through a mediation council that would scrutinize both lending and borrowing policies, assess a country's capacity to repay a debt, and challenge corruption.

"We all live in the grip of an economy which encourages over-lending and over-borrowing, an economy which drives us relentlessly into debt," Ndungane told the plenary. "But the poorest, those with very little income to depend on…are enslaved by it. They live in bondage to their creditors."

"To be born in debt and die in even bigger debt is the fate of a third of the world's population," said Archbishop Glauco de Lima of Brazil. He was among those who thought the combined voice of the Lambeth bishops could influence those who run the world's economy.

Bishop Geralyn Wolf of Rhode Island said that listening to the stories from the indebted world "where suffering is so great" moved her to the extent that "my heart has been filled with tears." She pointed out that the United States also had pockets of extreme poverty and a growing gap between rich and poor.

Many bishops left Lambeth with lingering questions of how effective their efforts to address the issues of debt and economic justice could be in such a complex economic context. Yet many bishops from the developing world felt heartened that the issue had been so thoroughly discussed and said they were now able to return to their countries with a glimmer of hope.