Debt, poverty and trade: A human rights emergency

Address given by The Most Rev. Njongonkulu Ndungane, Archbishop of Cape Town
at the Primates' Meeting, Kanuga Episcopal Conference Center, USA, March 2001

Archbishop Ndungane

In this time of information overload it becomes increasingly difficult to translate statistics into reality. In many ways the issues of our day - debt, poverty, injustice and AIDS have become catchphrases that roll too easily off our tongues but are often extremely difficult to grasp. It has also become a survival tactic to tune out information that drives us out of our comfort zones.

As one who has consistently campaigned for the cancellation of developing world debt, I am only too aware of that sinking feeling you may have when your agenda tells you that "Mr. Poverty" is back on his soapbox. But it is only fair to warn you that I stand before you more convinced than ever that we are running out of time. Debt and Poverty are a critical human rights emergency and it behoves us to change our mindset from that of "new millennium beginnings". We must spring into action. Seldom has the Anglican Communion been so challenged to mobilise in the interests of our global pastoral responsibilities. Just as in ages past, the call to prophetic ministry has become a clarion call.

I have in the past year had the privilege of addressing various international gatherings on the subject of debt and poverty. And I am pleased to report that there is clearly a groundswell of international acceptance that the debt-induced poverty is as much a threat to the wealthy countries as it is to their poor counterparts. What I fear is that, while the problem is widely recognised, there is a tendency, especially within the church and civic society, to stand back and wait for big business and government to act. It is a luxury we simply cannot afford and we fail God by doing so.

How do we translate our discussions into realities far beyond these walls? It is about carrying home with us, and sustaining, our sense of global responsibility and mutual interdependence. We need to pray and speak for each other. When a child is shot in Palestine, or a woman dies of hunger in Africa, the whole of Creation bleeds. As leaders in the Anglican Communion, we are called to be peacemakers and there is a saying: if you want peace, work for justice. Peace is not the absence of war or conflict, but the presence of those conditions in society that ensure that everyone has all that is basic for human living such as food, shelter, clothing, access to health care, clean water and education.

Peacemakers are those who want to ensure that there is good governance founded on principles that embrace fundamental human rights, inclusivity, fairness and equity. Our religious heritage informs us that as God's stewards all of us have a responsibility for the equitable sharing of the resources of the earth, which God has placed at our disposal. In turn, governments have a moral duty to co-ordinate those resources for the Common Good and the general well-being of citizens.

Yet we live in a world where there is so much inequality, poverty and uneven development in the world. Some statistics demonstrate this point:

The income gap between the poorest fifth of the world's people and the richest fifth has in 30 years increased from 32:1 to 90:1; The net worth of the world's three richest people is greater than the combined national income of the 48 poorest countries. Approximately 1.3 billion people survive--or fail to survive -on $la day. 3 billion people survive on $2 a day, and 2 billion people have no access to electricity. If you deconstruct these figures, you find women and vulnerable groups are most adversely affected. More than 800 million people go hungry.

In Africa, malaria and TB kill as many as 4,5 million people a year but the world's pharmaceutical giants do not spend monies on research and development for these diseases because there is no profit in it. The fact is, poor people cannot pay for drugs. The implications of this approach is even more horrific when we consider the AIDS pandemic.

All this in a world in which the three richest people in the world have assets that exceed the gross domestic product of the 48 least developed countries and their 600 million people. In fact, only 26 countries in the world have a Gross Domestic Product greater than the total revenue of General Motors.

We are all familiar with the UNDP's Human Development Index and the "Champagne Glass Graph", which shows that the top 20% of humanity now captures 86% of all wealth, while the bottom 20% has seen its already meagre portion of this wealth reduced to just 1.3%.

It is a world in which Americans spend more than 8 billion dollars a year on cosmetics - 2 billion dollars more than the estimated annual total needed to provide basic education for everyone in the world. In 1996, Ethiopia had a total foreign debt of 10 billion dollars, whilst in the same year Europe spent 11 billion dollars on ice cream alone.

Clem Sunter, the economist, author and futurist, writes in his book entitled: "Never Mind the Millennium. What About the Next 24 hours." that, despite all the poverty statistics, we live in a world permanently in surplus. Our lives are ruled by the economics of surplus, not by the economics of scarcity. This is a total contradiction of predictions that there wouldn't be sufficient food to feed an over populated world. Today we have a surplus of just about any commodity including cotton, oil, gold, steel, copper, nickel, aluminium and coal. Even if the entire production capacity of North American cars were wiped out overnight, there would still be a surplus capacity.

34,000 children die daily from malnutrition in a world that could feed more than its current population.

It may come as a surprise to you that poor people aren't poor because of the scarcity of resources and products. They are poor because they are denied the opportunity to make money for themselves.

It is this that brings us to the crux of the matter - the crippling effect of debt on developing countries.

But it is important to understand that this is not primarily a financial problem. Although counted in dollars, the burden of foreign debt is a crisis for humanity.

Vast sums of money are pouring out of impoverished African countries into the coffers of those in the so-called "First World". The direct result is that the governments of impoverished countries have wholly inadequate funds to address basic human needs for food, clean water, health and education. The debt crisis is a matter of life and death. African children, women and men are dying while old debts to wealthy lenders are being repaid. This is a human rights emergency!

These debts have accumulated over four decades, and they have become a monster. Poor indebted countries are transferring their inadequate resources to rich countries. Interest payments mount to terrifying proportions, so that over time countries have repaid the principle amount many times over without retiring the loans. For every $1 that rich countries lend to developing countries $8 comes straight back in the form of repayment on debts owed to the rich countries. So wealth is not trickling down from the rich to the poor, as people like to think. Wealth is actually flowing up from the South to the North. Countries of the South find themselves giving away, virtually free, earnings from their precious commodities like coffee, copper, tea and sugar. This is a form of economics which denies us our humanity, rich and poor alike.

A typical example of the iniquities that exist is that of Zambia, where 8 out of 10 households live in extreme poverty. Although Zambia was recently granted some debt relief, the cost of servicing the remaining debt has risen so sharply that the country is paying more than it was before.

May I remind you that at Lambeth we rated the issue of international debt and economic justice in the light of our belief in creation. God has created a world in which we are bound together in a common humanity in which each person has equal dignity and value. God has generously given to the nations immense resources, which are to be held in trust and used for the well being of all. In Christ Jesus he offers us liberation from all that which destroys healthy human life - a pattern of giving which God desires all to follow.

The healthy pattern for relationships is of mutual giving and receiving of God's gifts. Borrowing has its place only in as much as it releases growth for human well being. When we ignore this pattern, money becomes a force that destroys human community and God's creation. The vast expansion in the power and quantity of money in recent decades, the huge increase in borrowing among rich and poor alike, the damaging mater and spiritual consequences to many, bear testimony to this destructive force.

On the environmental front, just as serious threats are emerging from frenetic commercial and industrial globalisation. For example, extreme weather patterns, caused in part by global warming are responsible scientists posit, for the unprecedented range of droughts and floods U-have been ravaging Africa.

Meanwhile, we are running out of water and "water wars" are predicted several stressed regions, including the Middle East.

Toxic dumping continues unabated, although in Johannesburg recently international convention was agreed upon that may phase out some of the most persistent organic pollutants. However, if the meeting on the Kyoto Protocol in The Hague last November is any indication, we can expect the world's only superpower to ignore its international environmental obligations on matters like carbon emissions.

Finally, as for economic stability, we were all told that following the 199 99 "emerging-markets" scare--in Mexico, East Asia, Russia, and Brazil--U international financial crisis was finally over. That was not to be so.

We in South Africa, like our sisters and brothers in Latin America, Eastern Europe and Asia, also faced 25% crashes of our currency in 1996 a 1998. We also experienced extreme increases in interest rates, massive job losses, the worst-ever stock market crash, and capital flight on a scale never before experienced.

Argentina and Turkey, also praised for their adherence to Washington dictates, have in recent months found themselves in desperate need of multibillion dollar bailouts.

New York's Nasdaq exchange, that hosts so many high-tech stocks' crashed by more than 50% from its peak in March last year. Corporations, such as Intel and Apple Computer, lost hundreds of billions of dollars in paper worth over the space of a few bad trading days in the middle of last year.

Add to this the Negative impact of Globalisation on poor countries. While we appreciate the positive aspects of Globalisation as a reflection of humanity, an advancement, nevertheless there are serious questions over whether developing states will be able to survive these globalisation processes at all. Poor countries and regions of the world face the danger of permanent marginalisation. In economic terms they find themselves consistently 'out-competed' in international markets by the wealthy and powerful.

Catch Me Patch Me
Weight loss patches!

Losing weight has never been so effective!

Onychomycosis finally defeated!

Global recession and generally depressed international markets for primary export products continue to stifle the export-oriented development drive of most Third World nations. Less developed countries have been forced to accept worsening terms of trade for fear of complete exclusion from international economic activity. For the wealthy, continents such as Africa remain the source of oil and scarce, non-renewable resources. Simply put, in the New Age the poor face the danger of designation to perpetual irrelevance.

What a way to begin the new Millennium - with global uneven development at its most outrageous in recorded history, with the environment being plundered, and with international economic instability getting worse!

So it should not surprise you that prophetic voices in many progressive popular movements around the world are challenging the failures of the dominant leadership. In the process, prophetic voices are necessarily questioning the dominant religion of complacent triumphalism, which is sometimes called neoliberalism. The word signifies that this is an updated version of 19th-century, "laissez faire" economic liberalism aimed mainly at allowing markets to operate uninhibited by state regulation or by the desires of humanity.

Primary among these is a desire for the wiping clean of the economic inequality that has become such a burden on human progress. We desire the resolution of the terribly unsustainable economic situation that today binds debtor to creditor, that starves the children, that destroys nature, that oppresses women, that keeps people with dark skins at the bottom of the global ladder.

A small amount of debt was cancelled in the closing days of last year, with 22 very low-income countries benefiting. But the Highly Indebted Poor Country initiative, under which the World Bank and IMF granted limited debt relief, is best described as a "cruel hoax" - as Jubilee South termed the 1999 Cologne and 2000 Okinawa resolutions of the G-8 countries.

For, in addition to the meagre amounts involved, this debt plan comes with terribly austere conditions, including in Mozambique the quintupling of primary healthcare cost recovery, and the privatisation of municipal water with huge tariff increases. So we remain extremely critical of the way in which $2 trillion in Third World debt is being managed.

Aside from such critique, we need to develop alternative visions of social change, genuine development, ecological sensitivity, and empowerment of our most vulnerable constituents. We need to work for a world in which human values take precedence over material ones. We need global governance that embraces the values of honesty, trustworthiness, integrity, inclusivity, transparency and accountability.

To realise these goals we need to intensify our campaigns for global economic justice. The late Nobel Prize winner Jonas Salk said: We are the first generation in human history in which large numbers of people are taking personal responsibility for the entire species."

In order for us to deal effectively with the challenges of globalisation we need resilient, well focused and principled grass roots leadership.

We need to embark on initiatives that will bring about social justice in the world. At a meeting in Dakar, Senegal, barely three months ago, the Jubilee South and Jubilee North movements endorsed a call not only for Third World leaders to repudiate illegitimate debts, but to campaign for reparations. Our sisters and brothers in Nigeria have made a start, by demanding that Swiss banks repatriate money stolen by the dictator Sani Abacha. Jubilee 2000 South Africa has also embarked on a reparations campaign targeting countries, banks and business houses that benefited from apartheid.

Other initiatives include the examination of exchange control systems; levying of a "Tobin Tax" of 0,5% on international financial transactions; and the mobilisation of our own internal development-finance resources so that we are never dependent upon a dollar, a pound, a yen, a D-mark or a Swiss franc, for our development needs.

Why, after all, should a rural school in Africa or Latin America be financed with a foreign loan, when all the input costs are in local currency?

That great American economist Jeffrey Sachs, writing in the Economist, made four interesting proposals:

Rich and poor need to learn to talk together and develop a common plan of action.

Rich and poor countries should direct their urgent attention to the mobilisation of science and technology for poor country problems. To this end he proposes the creation of a Millennium Vaccine Fund which guaranteed future markets for malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS vaccines.

The global regime on intellectual property rights needs to be revised. At present so-called "First World" institutions and international corporations are busy taking out patents on every new intellectual idea and discovery possible. The poor are being excluded once again, and will continue to be so unless some sense of global responsibility is introduced. The ongoing debate over access to AIDS medication in this country is an indication of this. Incentives for innovations which will benefit the whole of humanity -- not just the rich - must be provided with no more delay. This is the global responsibility of all those in power.

The need for a serious discussion about long term finances for the international public goods necessary for the highly indebted poor countries to break through to prosperity.

I think we all accept that it is time for radical and decisive steps to address the issues I have raised. Issues which threaten the future survival of the world.

More and more frequently, leading economists are recognising that the Washington Consensus - which provides the framework for international financial systems - is flawed. What is needed is for us to put into place new economic systems: economic systems which put people, not profits, first. All the more tragic then, with the collapse of communism, that the free enterprise capitalists have jumped on the bandwagon of excessive profit and rampant greed. The failure of communism does not make unrestrained capitalism right. Communism arose in the first place because of the injustices within capitalism. I would like, at this point, to say how much I welcomed the statement His Holiness, Pope John Paul II made when he gave his personal backing to the international Jubilee 2000 delegation that met with him in September 1998.

He said, and I quote: "The law of profit alone cannot be applied to that which is essential for the fight against hunger, disease and poverty. The Catholic Church.... has consistently taught that there is a "social mortgage" on all private property, a concept which today must also be applied to "intellectual property" and to "knowledge"."

The Holy Father is right. The law of profit - it has already been proved -cannot put food in the bellies of the millions - mothers, fathers, children, grandparents, workers - the millions who hunger and starve, here on the African continent, in Latin America and in Asia. The law of profit will not allow them the drugs they need to treat the most stressful and appalling diseases known to humanity: HIV/Aids, Malaria, Hepatitis and Tuberculosis. The law of profit will not help the majority in the world to climb out of the deep well of poverty into which they have been plunged by a ruthless economic system whose main driving force is profit and greed.

That is why we need new economic systems. Economic systems which place human values at their centre; not money values.

Nobel Peace Laureate, Professor Amartya Sen, emphasises that the validity of any economic policy should be judged on whether it takes into account its impact on people who are on the downside of the economy. He says that it is necessary to bring social deprivation into the domain of public discussion and create systems for social opportunities. A guiding principle in designing an economic policy that has, as its major focus, the well-being of humanity is the notion of the common good. In so doing we would ensure that communities and individuals benefited.

Jesus Christ came to challenge and enable us to take responsibility for our lives, to use our power to make choices. We do not have to be enslaved by the elemental forces of nature and economic systems. We can be liberated. This requires discipline and control. With discipline and control we can overcome the scourge of abject poverty. With our God-given responsibility, we can use the resources God has given us for the good of one another and his world. God has provided for our need, not our greed.

In the very first chapter of the book of Genesis, we hear God telling us to look after and care for this world. This does not mean, as many have interpreted it, selfishly exploiting His gift. In being given "rule", we are to look after, nurture and care for what God has given us so that this world will be a better place for us and for our children. There is a saying which should always be in the forefront of our minds that "we have not inherited this world from our parents, we have borrowed it from our children."

To sustain the world we need a new brand of science and technology, and this need to be governed by a new brand of economics and politics, with a sound moral foundation. Ethics should precede politics, economics and the law because political action is concerned with values and choices. Ethics must, therefore, inform and inspire political leadership to fulfill our obligations as human beings for the well-being of others.

The time has now come for action. The inequalities of the world are increasing at an alarming rate. The rich are getting far too rich and the poor are becoming desperately poorer. God looks down and does not like what he sees happening on earth. The Old Testament prophets called long ago for justice and righteousness in our dealings with one another and our care of God's created order. We must stand up and demand action now. If the rich and the powerful do not take action, they, with the rest of the world, will suffer.

The rich nations, and the multinational corporations, must recognise that they cannot continue on the present course of economic growth and exploitation which disregards the consequences upon fellow human beings and the natural world. The rich must recognise that the purpose of life is not just the acquisition of wealth but the development of the world for the good of its inhabitants and the world itself for future generations. This change of attitude has enormous repercussions. We must grasp the responsibilities given to us to care for the future of our people and of our world.

While we allow the injustices to continue, social unrest will increase, drug trafficking and political turmoil will be the order of the day, while the natural world becomes a barren wasteland, less and less able to support the demand humans' place on it.

There is a particular African concept we call Ubuntu. Ubuntu has been described by Professor C L S Nyembezi as:

To live and care for others
To act kindly towards others
To be hospitable
To be just and fair
To be compassionate
To assist those in distress
To be trustworthy and honest, and
To have good morals

My hope is that the values of Ubuntu will come to govern the way we deal with each other. We need to hold each other's hands as we step forward and make the world a secure environment for ourselves, our children and our children's children.

In the exercise of responsible stewardship we need to co-operate with one another for the common good. We need to work together and create interdisciplinary partnerships of trust and hope. Together we can do more.

Morally righteous people in the world fought against slavery and won. Morally righteous people in the world fought against apartheid and won. In our time the challenge for us is to make a world where human values take priority.

Morally righteous people must now combat the scourges of poverty, which Mahatma Ghandi called the deadliest form of violence. Seldom has the church been so challenged in terms of prophetic ministry - its obligation to nurture and nourish a consciousness and perception different from the dominant culture. We are called, as that great theologian Walter Brueggemann, so aptly puts it, "to energise change". And it is critically important for those of us within the Christian communion and the interfaith movement to note that we represent the most powerful lobby in the world.

Of course the Anglican Communion recognises both the seriousness of the situation and its global pastoral responsibilities. This is reflected in the resolution adopted at the 1998 Lambeth Conference. In some respects this resolution has been overtaken by events but the church continues to be driven by the same principles.

This includes recognition that, although poverty reduction is more important than debt cancellation, it is necessary to free people from the hopeless downward spiral of poverty created by unpayable debt. Moreover, in the interest of democracy and economic growth, this would be an important step towards re-establishing the dignity and independence of the indebted countries that had forfeited their autonomy to international creditors.

The resolution called on political, corporate and church leaders and the people of creditor nations to accept equal dignity for debtor nations in the negotiation process. The Conference wanted legal checks and balances for the lending process and the introduction of mechanisms to discipline lenders, make them accountable for bad lending and to effectively challenge corruption.

In turn, the political leaders, finance ministers, corporate executives, traditional rulers, religious leaders and people of the debtor nations were urged to accept independent, fair and transparent procedures for agreeing debt relief. Corruption had to be controlled and the monies saved on servicing the debt had to be channelled into the alleviation of poverty.

Lenders and borrowers alike, were to act in a spirit of mutual co-operation and partnership and to work with the United Nations to establish a Mediation Council . This would challenge corruption, assess a country's ability to pay and, above all to protect the ordinary citizens of a country from having to carry the full brunt of debt incurred by their political oppressors.

The intention being to give the countries a fresh start.

At the time, Lambeth was delighted that, due largely to pressure from Jubilee 2000, the IMF and World Bank had two year's earlier initiated a framework whereby heavily indebted countries would be granted debt relief. I am sad to say that this admirable initiative has been hamstrung partly by bureaucratic bungling within those two organisations. But its most objectionable aspect is its Structural Adjustment Policies which require that debt repayment is the first call on a nation's budget.

Hence the famous question from Mwalimo Nyerere: "Shall we starve our children to pay our debts?" And the infamous response from the creditors led by the IMF, which effectively says: "Yes, you shall pay your debts before you feed your children. Yes, you shall prioritise repayment of debts over expenditure on health, education, clean water and sanitation. Yes, your children shall face unlimited liability for the debts of their governments."

Similarly, each time the wealthy countries meet at the highly publicised G7 and G8 summits, our hopes are dashed by the indifference to the suffering of those nations whose plight threatens our global equilibrium.

Several years ago Angela Tilby, preaching in Southwark Cathedral on Good Friday said something we all need to remember against the backdrop of the picture I have just painted of the intransigent attitude that obtains among the wealthy nations, the IMF and the World Bank.

Speaking of the ways we oppress and imprison ourselves and each other that prevent our gifts from being used and block off the gift of the future. she said: "One of the most effective ways of killing the future is by lending people things in such a way as to control them. In financial terms, this is what the prosperous world did to many developing countries when they had money to spare in the late 1970s. As a result their economies are enslaved to ours, they have no future that is not in our interest. The God-given talents of millions of our fellow citizens are unable to flourish, because they are being used to produce quick cash, simply to pay the interest on the loans. No one ever believes that the capital is repayable, and so the rich nations have effectively turned the world into a slave economy."

We need to heed the lessons of Jesus in the parable of the talents, as we are challenged to allow our brothers and sisters from poorer parts of the world to develop their gifts, free from the bondage of oppressive debt.

As I see it, debt cancellation is far from being an unjustified and wasteful handout. It is really an opportunity to return order, stability and discipline into the international financial system of lending and borrowing. It will make all parties think twice about incurring or making loans.

I have also long called for international legislation similar to national laws that recognise that there are times when a corporation or individual has reached a point of no return i.e. bankruptcy. If we can have laws that allow them to wipe the slate clean why cant we adopt the same approach for countries?

I do, however, despair of the lip service being paid by the wealthy creditor-nations to the mind boggling implications of poverty incurred by unpayable debt and I am now convinced that the only way to get them to sit up and take notice is for the indebted countries to simply stop servicing the debt. And channel the funds for much needed social development programmes such as fighting the HIV/AIDS pandemic, providing clean water education healthcare, sanitation To do this effectively developing countries must put in place transparent accountable instruments to ensure that the funds are directed at the right causes.

Unjust global economic systems and structures entrap millions of people in a cycle of impoverishment - with all its consequences of disease, human deprivation and despair. And we have an opportunity to address issues faced by our broken world, to declare that our global economy is not working because it is not allowing God's people to achieve full humanity.

What, you may well ask, has all this to do with dioceses, parishes and individuals.

Architects tell us God is in the details. Others tell us every action has a reaction, Ubuntu teaches that I am because I am part of community. It is little drops of water that wear away the rock. And I would urge you to remember that all major events have small beginnings. Just look at what resulted from the birth of a baby born in a manger!

There are many ways in which we can make a difference. Besides taking personal ownership of the issues at international level we can provide support for a moral standard that binds nations together and furthers global economic development.

There is also a critical need for us to monitor delivery on the pledges and promises made by international institutions and acting as a necessary prophetic voice.

At diocesan level, for example, we could respond to the Lambeth Conference challenge, which calls on dioceses to fund international development programmes by pledging at least 0,7 percent of total income. Besides lobbying regional and national influencers and decision-makers, we should be encouraging and supporting companion relationships between our dioceses in the Anglican Communion whereby human and material resources are shared.

Above all, let us remember that we are here to give a presence and a voice to the poor. It is what God expects of us. Jesus says just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

As God's stewards and members of the household of faith we need to create models of hope that will give the vast majority of people in the world new opportunities for living full human lives. The great saint, bishop and teacher Arenaeus says that the glory of God is in a human being that is fully alive.

We need to seize the opportunity as we enter the new millennium full of hope that all things are possible for those who believe. The first Christians stood on the threshold of the first millennium in a state of hopelessness after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. But God raised him from the dead. Hence our age is an age of hope, an age of new beginnings, an age of the Resurrection faith.

Across the world, across the street,
the victims of injustice cry
for shelter and for bread to eat
and never live until they die.
Then let the servant church arise,
a caring church that longs to be
a partner in Christ's sacrifice
and clothed in Christ's humanity.

The opportunity to create a world with human face is now.

Through an act of immeasurable power and grace, let us grasp the nettle and reshape the economy of the world for the good of all its people. In this way the third millennium can be a jubilee celebration and the Risen Lord can help us understand his proclamation: "Behold I am making all things new!" and challenge us to join him in bringing new life and new hope to a dying world.

Source: Anglican Communion News Service, London.

Back to index.