International debt emerging as central issue for Lambeth Conference

July 1, 1998

As the Anglican bishops of the world gather at the University of Kent and Canterbury Cathedral in England for the Lambeth Conference of 1998, their deliberations over the question of international debt will be shaped by the impending Jubilee Year of 2000.

While United Nations figures show signs of hope for many developing countries--increased life expectancy, improved literacy, and economic growth--the burden of debt still drags down efforts to raise ever more of their citizens out of poverty. Relief, asserted Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, could come through a contemporary version of the ancient Jubilee Year 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.

Such an event may or may not have ever actually occurred, but the theological rationale for a Jubilee Year still holds today, Carey suggested in an address to the synod of the Diocese of Canterbury in March.

"While we cannot read off economic policies from Leviticus, we can feel its stinging rebuke for any acts which enslaves others or separates families or which reduces people to be the chattels of others or which dehumanizes people made in the image of God," Carey said. "Because that is what we are talking about when we consider our world today."

The cost of debt

The dire state of much of the world’s population was a constant theme at an historic meeting of leaders of nine world faiths with Jim Wolfensohn, the president of the World Bank, hosted by Carey at Lambeth Palace in February.

According to Wolfensohn, Carey related, "three billion people live on under two dollars a day: 1.3 billion live on under one dollar a day. One hundred million go hungry every day. One hundred and fifty million never get the opportunity to go to school." The director of the World Health Organization has described the deaths each year of 11 million children from easily treatable diseases as a "silent genocide," Carey said, while "in too many countries the poorest 10 percent have less than one percent of the income, whilst the richest 20 percent enjoy over half."

As population continues to grow, Wolfensohn described the situation as "a time bomb," Carey said, adding that "the biggest and most crippling burden that Third World countries have are the massive debts which are totally unpayable and which engulf millions of people today in a form of slavery no less real than the terrible Atlantic trade of the early 19th century."

While the problem is hardly limited to Africa, of the world’s 20 most severely indebted, low-income countries, 16 are in Africa, and "the external debt of those 16 countries amounts to $100 billion," Carey said. "The cost of servicing this debt hangs like a noose round the necks of their economies."

The voice of the Two-Thirds World

At Lambeth, one of the few plenary sessions bringing together all the bishops, bishops’ spouses and other participants will be devoted to the international debt issue. In part, Lambeth’s focus on the debt reflects the increasing influence of bishops of the developing world and the southern hemisphere, noted Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane of Cape Town in the Church of the Province of Southern Africa. He will chair the section of bishops working on the debt and other issues such as the environment, human sexuality and poverty that fall under the topic, "Full Humanity."

Perhaps no other issue sets the realities of developed and developing nations in such sharp contrast, Ndungane said in an address at the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta in May, 1997.

"The question we all face is whether we can speak of progress when, on the one hand, incredible technological advances make life easier for the affluent, but, on the other hand, have little or no impact on the lives of the poor and marginalized," he said. "America--the ‘land of the free’--is also the land of the computer whose brain power is said to double every 18 months. Yet there are countless millions of people throughout the world who have no opportunity whatsoever to develop their brain power or their God-given potential because they live in abject poverty."

But concern for the issue is not limited to the countries carrying the debt burden. In preliminary regional planning for the conference, "there were a number of subjects which nearly all the bishops thought to be a priority for consideration," noted Carey in his letter welcoming bishops to Lambeth. "Amongst these, the issue of international debt stood out." The plenary session should be of "the highest possible quality," Carey said, adding that "we expect to pursue our own debate by ensuring that the decisions and the resolution from the conference are taken seriously by international political and economic forums."

Benefits of forgiveness

Under the Highly Indebted Poor Countries initiative, the World Bank has already begun a process of forgiving some debt for countries such as Mozambique, but getting full agreement from creditors is slow and much more must be done throughout the world, Carey said. The year 2000 offers a particularly appropriate goal.

"Why the year 2000? Well, it gives us all a new opportunity to make this a Jubilee that actually works," he said. "In that year we shall be celebrating the 2000th anniversary of the birth of the one who brought us life, hope and peace. He has reconciled us to God and to each other. He is the one who began his ministry on a Jubilee note: ‘He has sent me to proclaim release for the prisoners.’"

An international Jubilee 2000 campaign has spread through Britain, Austria, Germany, and African nations such as Ghana and Kenya. The campaign estimates that unpayable debt is at least $100 billion, though other sources have put the figure as high as $250 billion.

Beyond Mozambique, noted Ndungane, "there are still many other countries in Africa and elsewhere whose people are living in abject poverty, largely as a result of debts incurred by their governments in the past." If similar relief can be provided to other countries, he said, "we will begin to see the reality of economic growth on the one continent with, as yet, vast untapped potential which could be the springboard of a world economic renaissance."

According to briefing papers for Lambeth, the international development agency Oxfam stated in 1996 that "it would be possible by the year 2000 to make social investments which would save the lives of around 21 million African children and provide 90 million girls with primary education, for less than is currently being spent on servicing international debt."

Debt remission means that "the poor nations of the world can make a fresh start," the report states. "For those in debt, this would be an occasion to experience the redeeming love offered by Jesus on the Cross as he personally, spiritually and physically embodied the values of mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation, recognized in the Jubilee tradition. Creditors of the world would experience the offering of sacrificial love in the true unity of humanity, thereby being liberated from the weight of the burden of guilt from the oppression and poverty they helped foster."

As the briefing papers noted, there are several reasons for canceling international debt: "First is the moral imperative, recognizing that no community that claims to be civilized should tolerate a world situation where unpayable debt burden fosters the evils of mass malnutrition, disease and illiteracy."

Economics and prudence also argue for relief. "Debt reduction will release the productive potential of marginalized communities and help create a framework for more self-reliant growth," the report notes, adding that "it is not in the long-term interests of the world, and certainly not of the richer countries, that so many people be pauperized."

The strength of partnership

Through church-led cooperation, change really could come about, Ndungane asserted in a speech to the Royal African Society in Scotland in November, 1997. According to the 1997 United Nations Human Development Report, "a dozen or more developing countries have shown that it is possible to eliminate absolute poverty," he pointed out. "A century and a half ago the world marshaled its resources and launched a successful campaign against slavery. In our own times, moral and righteous people around the globe campaigned for the end of apartheid and were successful."

Ndungane called for a new partnership between the developed and developing world that would reflect their mutual dependence, and live out humanity’s moral need to "ensure our world is ordered so that there is a coordination of the social condition for the common good of all." Particularly important, he said, is sharing the benefits of technology now so unevenly distributed. "The world cannot live without technology. The developing world requires access to technology and capital. It requires the expertise of those who are able to contribute to capacity building," he said.

"There is an international groundswell towards Jubilee 2000 amongst people who are prepared to do something about the debt--even people who would not normally easily be persuaded by moral arguments," Ndungane said. "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 millennium to do something that is morally and ethically right--that is the cancellation of the debt."