“ . . . As We Forgive Our Debtors”
Maria Sanchez, who cleans my hotel in Nicaragua for $1.50/day, cannot afford to send her children to school. Instead, she sends them to sell pencils in the streets. At the insistence of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Nicaraguan authorities have imposed user fees for schools (a registration fee and a monthly payment) to enable them to repay the foreign debt of $6.3 billion. In Nicaragua, about one quarter of primary school age children have not enrolled since these changes were introduced. World wide, 130 million children between the ages of 6 and 11 are not enrolled in school.
In Ghana, the situation is similar: fees charged for basic healthcare are earmarked for debt repayment. Recently, 20 women were held hostage in a hospital after childbirth because they could not pay the fees. More than one half of the African nations pay more in debt service than in health care for their citizens. These stories are repeated over and over in the 40-45 countries that make up the developing world. There, the burden of servicing the debt falls hardest on the poor, causing malnutrition and early death, among other things. These are avoidable tragedies that should not take a back seat to the value of the currency.
Moreover, people in the poor countries should not have to forego education, health care, and safe water to repay loans that dictatorial and tyrannical governments incurred. The most scandalous, but not the only case, is South Africa, which currently spends 40% of its annual budget to service the debt of the former apartheid government.
Finally, the foreign debt of these countries is increasingly regarded as unjust and illegitimate because of the startlingly high interest rates charged to the developing countries (in the 1980s this interest rate averaged 16.8%). Since 1980, these countries have paid $3,450 billion and two trillion more is owed. With the debt paid and repaid many times over, should the world’s poor be forced to pay more? Should aid that their governments receive from the IMF, the World Bank and developed nations be funneled right back to pay interest on a debt that never decreases? Increasingly, people of faith as well as other concerned people in the North and South are saying no.
The growing opposition to the chains of debt is based in part on the humanitarian crisis to which they contribute. But that is not the only issue. Moral principle is also involved. Many spiritual traditions share the belief that “no man is an island.” These traditions encourage us to feel compassion for the suffering of others; and we often do, especially when the misfortunes are both great and largely or completely undeserved. It is easier, of course, to feel this empathetic identification with others when those in pain are our neighbors or fellow citizens. But in a global age, where modern means of communication make the plight of those beyond our national borders immediate and vivid, every person is a potential neighbor: once people live in our imaginations, they can more readily be included in our circle of concern.
Beyond the ethical realm, there are religious considerations. The New Testament supports the claim that every human being is my neighbor, including the poor and the marginalized. We Christians are destined for communion with God and fellowship with all human beings. As Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me” (Matthew 25:45). With regard to those suffering from the burden of debt, both the Old and the New Testaments are instructive. Leviticus tells us that in the Jubilee year, those enslaved because of debt are free, lands lost because of debt are returned, and community is restored (Leviticus 25). But Jubilee is not just for Israel. Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God as a form of Jubilee for all nations wherein the oppressed are set free. And this is linked to the forgiveness of money debts and spiritual debts (Luke 7:36-50, 11:2-4, 16:1-3).
Is this not the time for us in the North to forgive the debts of those in the Global South? Should we not support the international Jubilee Movement to do just this? The Jubilee USA Network is the US wing of this movement. It is made up of more than 60 churches, (including Church X), faith based groups, labor and environmental groups, and local coalitions. They have come together to call for debt cancellation as a way to combat poverty. Should we not in Church X back their efforts?