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Jubilee continues journey of many steps: debt relief yet to materialize.

You shall hallow the fiftieth year and proclaim liberation in the land for all its inhabitants. You shall make this your year of Jubilee. (Leviticus 24:10)

The year 2000 was to be a year of Jubilee. However, the ambitious worldwide campaign has failed to convince the leaders of the First World to cancel outright the massive and debilitating debts of their poor cousins in the Third World.

Is Jubilee a failure then? Did the 640,000 Canadians who signed a debt cancellation petition and the countless parishioners who pestered politicians on the issue delude themselves with a naive, unattainable vision? Not according to Sara Stratton, communications coordinator of the Canadian Ecumenical Jubilee Initiative.

"We don't have a jubilee," Ms. Stratton said flatly during a summer interview in her Toronto office, crammed with Jubilee posters and literature. "I mean, we don't. But we have accomplished things that three years ago people wouldn't have believed we could have done."

Getting debt relief firmly onto the politicial agenda, both in Canada and worldwide, is one sure sign of success, Ms. Stratton, said. Canadian Finance Minister Paul Martin has been under constant pressure from the campaign, she said, including being deluged with petitions, letters and visits. He reportedly received more mail last fall on the debt issue than on anything else. And Mr. Martin declared the campaign a "phenomenal success," according to Jubilee campaigners who met with him.

Indeed, the CEJI was awarded the International Co-operation Award for Influencing Public Policy this year.

Financial commitments made in response to the debt relief campaign have, however, disappointed Jubilee supporters. The Group of Seven countries' meeting in Cologne, Germany in June 1999, produced an agreement for up to $100 US million in debt relief but stringent conditions were attached that some critics say make the commitment worthless. Moreover, very little of that promised relief has materialized to date. Jubilee supporters' hopes were dashed again in July in Okinawa, Japan, when the leaders of the world's richest countries refused to commit to any meaningful new measures further to last year's promises.

Canada has agreed to cancel bilateral debts owed to it by heavily indebted poor countries, with conditions attached, as have the other wealthy countries. Again, little of the relief has been given out yet.

Laurette Bergeron, a spokesperson in Canada's Finance Department, disagrees that the recent G7 meeting was a disappointment. She noted that 20 countries were to be involved in debt relief by the end of the year. Canada has made a $215 million contribution to an international debt relief trust fund, she said. "We're trying to do the best we can," she said.

The debt issue is complex and many-faceted. Jubilee organizers can't be accused of unnecessarily simplifying the issues and not doing the research. They have considered and responded to many of the possible objections to debt relief (see excerpts in sidebar) and put together a number of fact sheets.

Ms. Stratton explained how the 50 or so countries for which they are advocating debt relief got into trouble in the first place. In the 1970s, the wealthier countries and international banks were awash in cash and eager to lend it out. Developing countries (many of which were ruled by dictators) grabbed the money at floating interest rates and in many cases spent it building monuments to their leaders, buying arms or socking it away in foreign banks. In the 1980s, prices plunged for commodities sold by these countries, leaving them less money to repay their debts. At the same time, interest rates soared and the cost of repayment increased exponentially.

The Jubilee campaign considers these debts to be illegitimate, in that the people who are suffering now to repay them had no role in the borrowing, nor did they benefit from the loaned cash.

In most countries, the initial loans have been paid back, sometimes many times over. At the same time, the stringent conditions placed on many countries by lenders have made the situation many times worse, Ms. Stratton said. Structural adjustment programs have required indebted countries to cut government spending, typically on education and health care, and move production into exports, leaving them unable to feed their people.

Jubilee is calling for an end to these adjustment programs, but the Group of Seven, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank continue to insist on restructuring as a condition of debt relief. Indeed, under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative supported by the G7, countries have to suffer under three to six years of structural adjustment before being offered any debt relief. And the relief that's offered is only on the debt those countries are already unable to pay, it's not total debt cancellation.

The plan "is designed to keep debt at a `sustainable' level so countries can keep paying it," Ms. Stratton said. Jubilee campaigners in the Philippines say the small amount of debt relief available under the initiative is not worth the pain of structural adjustment.

Ms. Stratton sums up the debt cancellation campaign thus, "We've walked a long road. We have won small victories. But we don't have the big prize."

In the final year of the three-year Jubilee campaign, the theme shifts to include renewal of the Earth. Jubilee will continue to work on debt but will also lobby on land-based issues, including climate change, and land rights of aboriginal people.

"Jubilee doesn't just talk about restoring economic quality but about restoring land to its inhabitants and restoring it to its health," Ms. Stratton said. It's all a part of the biblical theme of restoring right relationships.

For anyone disappointed with the results of Jubilee to date, Ms. Stratton repeats the adage, "Jubilee is a journey of many steps." And this woman with the PhD in American history, whose contract ends in March, is in it for the long haul. "However the work continues, I'll be a part of it."
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Author:Blair, Kathy
Publication:Anglican Journal
Date:Sep 1, 2000
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