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Educational Spotlight: Jubilee 2000

by Angela Pancella

Educational Spotlight: Jubilee 2000

"Canada's Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, yesterday (March 25th) said Canada would act alone if G7 countries failed to respond adequately to the needs of the severely indebted countries."
--"Canada breaks the debt dam," Jubilee 2000 news page

I first heard of Jubilee 2000, the debt relief campaign, in a church in Ottawa some months back. A nun at the end of the Mass spoke movingly about the plight of countries burdened with unpayable debts. Church groups had banded together to call for the debts to be canceled in time for the First Year With "2" In Front of Three Other Digits. (Well, I can't well call it a "new millenium" until 2001, can I?) I have never heard this issue raised in any of my local news sources. I did see it mentioned on Wire, the U2 Internet mailing list, because Bono had become captivated by the idea. My curiosity had already been piqued by the nun in Ottawa; when word of this campaign reached Wire, I started researching the whole subject in earnest.

The Canadian branch of this campaign comes under an umbrella organization called the Canadian Ecumenical Jubilee Initiative (CEJI). CEJI is tackling more issues than debt relief, but this issue is the most timely one on their agenda, so I will focus on it as I comment on their web pages.

The Canadian site is the only national one I've seen arguing for debt relief in a firmly religious context. Campaigns in other countries, like the UK, are made up of both church-based and secular organizations. For instance, UK supporters include Oxfam, Comic Relief and War Child.

The "by the year 2000" timetable only makes sense in reference to religion. The concept of a "Jubilee year" crops up in the book of Leviticus, where God tells the Jewish people to set aside every fiftieth year as a sacred time. A trumpet would sound ("yobel," later made "jubel") declaring a year in which slaves were set free, debts were written off, and land was left fallow (for more specific details, find a Bible—try this online one—and look up Leviticus 25:8-17.)

Incidentally, CEJI's is also the only website I've seen that actually includes a trumpet fanfare, or a MIDI facsimile thereof. Click on the stylized trumpet in the box on the upper left hand corner of the homepage.

The Jubilee idea got transferred to the Christian world in 1300, when the Pope declared the Jubilee should be celebrated every century. Later this was revised to every fifty years, and then every twenty-five. Popes are still declaring Jubilee years, and the current Pope has even weighed in on the subject of debt relief in regard to the upcoming Jubilee in 2000:

"…In the spirit of the Book of Leviticus, Christians will have to raise their voice on behalf of all the poor of the world, proposing the Jubilee as an appropriate time to give thought, among other things, to reducing substantially, if not cancelling outright, the international debt which seriously threatens the future of many nations."
(Find full text here:
Now, it would not be unprecedented for the Pope to support an idealistic position—it's his job, after all. But he's supported in the call by an eclectic mix of figures including Muhammad Ali, Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, and the aforementioned Bono All these idealists are taken with the same ideal. At least some of them seem to believe this particular ideal is an achievable goal. And they are joined in this belief by more than 30 Canadian churches and ecumenical organizations.

it would not be unprecedented for the Pope to support an idealistic position—it's his job, after all


The Canadian Ecumenical Jubilee Initiative runs a definitively comprehensive site, and it is possible to be overwhelmed by what is presented. When so much information can be obtained from one place, a Frequently Asked Questions list is the best refuge for the uninitiated. Unfortunately, the CEJI's FAQ is not easy to find, and is itself almost too comprehensive to be helpful. Nowhere is it specifically called a FAQ, though it is surely meant to perform the function of one. Also, it is broken up into a section called "Background Information" and a set of seven "fact sheets", each with their own group of questions. Here are some FAQs about their stance on debt relief, presented as a public service to anyone lacking the time to read CEJI's reams of material.

What countries' debts is the CEJI talking about here?
Angola, Bangladesh, Benin, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire), Congo (Brazzaville), Côte d'Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea­Bissau, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Kenya, Laos, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Myanmar (Burma), Nepal, Nicaragua, Niger, Nigeria, Philippines, Rwanda, Saô Tomé and Principe, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Vietnam, Yemen, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. All 50 of these have debts considered "unpayable" by CEJI, because to pay even a portion of what they owe causes them to cycle deeper into poverty.

Who owns the debt?
About 1/2 belongs to Canada, Japan, the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Italy. Most of the rest is owed not to any one country, but to the multinational moneychangers, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

They may owe us money, but do we actually collect any of it? Is this just a "paper" debt that no one is acting on?

Money is coming in, but it's for paying interest, not the principal. The total debt in 1980 was US $568 million. From 1980 to 1997, US $2.9 TRILLION was paid, but today the debt is about US $2 trillion. If you think something doesn't compute here, you're not alone.

How much debt does the Jubilee 2000 campaign want written off?
J2K (don't you love how quickly computer users resort to acronyms?) is asking the leaders of the world's richest countries to cancel US $160 billion of the debt. A mind-boggling amount, yes, but let's toss around some other big numbers for a minute. Once again, the total debt is about US $2 trillion—more than 13 times that first figure. Every country will have to cancel a percentage of the debt based on how much it lent (incidentally, this is why the campaign must be supported by all of the G7 countries, regardless of what Chretien says about going it alone). Canada's share will probably be a little less than a billion dollars.

But won't it hurt Northern countries to forgive debt?

A key point to remember here, summarized nicely on the Jubilee 2000 website: "If debt is unpayable, it costs nothing to cancel it." Lender countries already know 80% of the money owed by the very poorest countries will never be paid back—otherwise, they wouldn't have agreed to a recent World Bank proposal to cancel some debts slowly (a plan the J2K people call "too little, too late). If their budget writers have the intelligence of the average Grade 12 student, they haven't written the recovery of this money into their future revenues, so canceling this debt shouldn't be a hardship.

what sort of cash crop's value stays consistently high? Cash crops like cocaine, heroin, etc…


The real question is, how much is it hurting us to keep this debt on the books? There is a clear relationship between the debt load of poor countries and the drug problems in the North. To raise funds, poor countries must export cash crops and cheap goods. Unfortunately, the market gets flooded quickly, as all the countries export the same sort of items, and prices drop. But what sort of cash crop's value stays consistently high? Cash crops like cocaine, heroin, etc…

Okay, so there are great reasons to support debt relief. But how feasible is it? Chretien notwithstanding, how can this be achieved in a world where countries concern themselves primarily with their own self-interest?

The only way anything should be achieved in free countries: by educating the people, which is precisely why websites like CEJI's are set up. For any of this to work, citizens must educate themselves about international debt and then demand specific action from their leaders. Any other resolution of this issue sits at cross purposes with representative government.

With this in mind, perhaps CEJI's strongest argument, the one most likely to be supported by your average Joe Canadian Citizen: Cancel "odious debts." What they call an "odious debt" is one incurred by a dictator working against the best interests of his people. It's a no-brainer to insist these debts should be written off. Otherwise, what are Northern countries saying? "People should foot the bill for their own oppression"?

Very useful information on history of less developed countries' debt:
In the section called "Awash in Waves of Hot Money"

I learned the definition for "jubilee" out of a dictionary—a paper dictionary, mind you, not a CD-ROM. So nyaah.

Angela Pancella was Canadian in a previous life. Now she is a freelance writer living in St. Louis, Missouri.
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