Time to End Debt Slavery
has become a truism that "there are no easy answers" to the world's
most pressing economic and social problems. The phrase is often repeated by
academics, policy wonks, and others whose occupation immerses them in the
details of real or imagined solutions. It is worth remembering that the
abolitionists who fought against American slavery right up to the Civil War were
told the same thing by those who advocated a "go slow" approach, and
were long regarded as extremists for their uncompromising moral stance.
movement against the debt slavery of the world's poorest countries faces similar
obstacles. First and foremost is the enormous, entrenched power of the
slaveholding class-- represented by the International Monetary Fund and its
controller, the United States Treasury Department.
the worldwide movement for debt cancellation has grown-- including a 17
million-signature petition presented at the G-7 meeting in June-- the overseers
have offered a series of concessions designed to minimize debt relief while
maximizing their control over the subject countries. For the most part they have
proposed to cancel only a fraction of the "phantom" debt-- the part
that everyone knows cannot be repaid. Thus there will be no significant
reduction in the amount of money that is drained annually from most of the
world's poorest countries to service their debt.
it's even worse than that. The latest initiatives, including those approved at
the recent IMF/World Bank meetings, leave the IMF in control of debt relief.
This is like putting Kathie Lee Gifford in charge of enforcing international
labor rights. Before qualifying for even "phantom debt" reduction,
countries will have to complete at least three years of the IMF's
"structural adjustment" programs, which have caused so much poverty
around the globe. These programs ought to carry a warning label that reads
"Caution: This medicine has been shown to cause reduced growth, higher
unemployment and poverty, and lower levels of education and public health."
the IMF and the World Bank began structurally adjusting Africa in the early
1980s, income per person has actually fallen by about 20%. In Latin America, it
has basically stagnated. If that isn't enough to indicate a failed experiment
that has gone on way too long, just look at what these same people have done to
Asia, Russia, and Brazil in just the last two years.
Fund's "structural adjustment" programs have become so discredited
that it is now proposing to change the name of its "Enhanced Structural
Adjustment Facility" to the "Poverty Reduction and Growth
Facility." As in George Orwell's "Ministry of Truth" and
"Ministry of Love." Debt Slavery is Freedom.
are other maneuvers taking place in the US Congress. One is an attempt by the
IMF to use some of its gold reserves to replenish its newly named Facility. Such
a move would only increase the power of this already unaccountable institution,
and should be defeated.
other is a bill, put forward by House Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach
(R-IA), which would cancel debt owed by 42 "Heavily Indebted Poor
Countries" to the US government. This would be fine, although it's a small
fraction of these countries' debt. But the bill unfortunately follows the
G-7/IMF lead by tying debt relief to the IMF's structural adjustment.
one should be fooled by President Clinton's announcement that the debt to the US
government will be cancelled. For all his fine language about "the moral
and economic urgency of the issue," he has offered nothing more than the
Leach bill, and would maintain the system of debt slavery.
case for unconditional and immediate cancellation of the poorer countries' debt
grows more compelling each day. Most of the countries up for relief are in
Sub-Saharan Africa, where 22.5 million people are infected with the AIDS virus.
Who can justify forcing Zimbabwe to pay a quarter of its export earnings to debt
service, when 26 percent of the adult population there has HIV/AIDS? Or
squeezing a similar amount from Uganda, which has the world's largest proportion
of orphans?(1.7 million, mostly due to AIDS). Or trying to collect on the $12.3
billion tab that the former dictator Mobutu piled up in Zaire (now the
Democratic Republic of Congo)?
great abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass had little patience for
the gradualists in the anti-slavery movement of his day, those would delay the
inevitable at the cost of enormous human suffering. Responding to one, he said:
"If the reverend gentleman had worked on the plantations where I have been,
he would have met overseers who would have whipped him in five minutes out of
his willingness to wait for liberty."
Weisbrot is research director of the Preamble Center, in Washington, DC.
Preamble Center 1737 21st Street NW Washington DC 20009
(202) 265-3263, ext.279 (offc)