Third World Debt Relief: A Call to Action

Article for the Alberta Catholic School Trustee Association's new newspaper The Catholic Dimension.

The debts of most Third World countries are rising faster than their ability to pay. In light of the Jubilee Year 2000, the time has come to reaffirm the social teachings of the Church and uphold human dignity. By relieving the foreign debt of the most highly indebted nations, already proposed by Pope John Paul II, Canada, along with its G8 partners, would be making it their objective to foster a more just and equitable world.

War, drought and falling commodity prices have devastated much of sub-Sahara Africa, but international lenders still require debt repayments that gut government provision of social services. More than a quarter of the world's population now lives on less than $1 U.S. per day, but every year an indebted nation like Mozambique spends more than $100 million U.S. in debt repayments. That is more than all the money it budgets for health, education, police and judicial systems combined.

Foreign debt and accompanying IMF-designed austerity measures created a situation in Central America where health and emergency response systems were utterly incapable of coping with the impact of hurricane Mitch. Environmental destruction, to which debt is firmly linked, made the impact far greater.

Honduras and Nicaragua are the poorest countries of Latin America, and the devastation of Hurricane Mitch took place within the context of years of under spending on health and education, due, in large part, to the servicing of international debt. In Honduras debt repayments are equal to the budgets for health and education combined. Nicaragua has had to cut its public expenditures from 30% and 90% in real terms since 1994. Because of foreign debt servicing and the resultant environmental devastation from cash cropping for exports, Hurricane Mitch was very much a man-made disaster.

Poverty in the midst of plenty is an affront to our basic moral values. Human dignity is not respected and vulnerable human life is endangered on a global scale, because of economic disparities within nations and between them. In the world's Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC), there exists little or no hope of accomplishing sustainable and significant improvements in the quality of life without offering them a fresh start.

A continuing theme in Catholic social teaching has been the common good. This refers to the whole of society being organized through its social, political and economic institutions in order that all individuals, families and communities are given the opportunity to flourish and seek their own good. This traditional understanding of the common good needs to be expanded to include sustainable and socially equitable growth in all regions of the globe.

To continue to extract as much as we can from the world's poorest countries will lead to the moral bankruptcy of our own society. Poverty is the result of human choices, values and priorities. The approach of the new millennium presents us with an extraordinary opportunity to provide hope and meaning to the lives of the impoverished people of the world. Debt relief would be a new start for a new millennium.

Doug Roche