Campaigners from around the world will gather in the British city of Birmingham on 18 May for Journey to Justice – an event marking 10 years of the campaign to Drop the Debt. It will be a decade since the day in 1998 when 70,000 people formed a human chain around the G8 summit in Birmingham – and put the international debt campaign on the map.
Since then, the Jubilee 2000 and Make Poverty History campaigns have helped turn debt cancellation for the countries of the South from a pipedream into a political reality. Some $88 billion of debt has been cancelled across 25 countries, delivering real benefits for people living in poverty across the world. Zambia, for instance, introduced free healthcare for people living in rural areas for the first time in 2006, following $4 billion of debt relief agreed in 2005.
But while significant achievements have been made, the campaign is far from over. The ‘Heavily Indebted Poor Countries’ (HIPC) scheme set up by the rich world to tackle the problem is both too limited and highly undemocratic. Countries like Kenya, Bangladesh and the Philippines, despite high poverty levels and massive debts, are told they don’t ‘qualify’ for debt relief under World Bank criteria, while countries that do qualify are forced to meet harmful and undemocratic economic policy conditions in order to complete the process. At least another $400 billion of unpayable debt must be cancelled if poor countries are to meet their people’s basic needs, yet the existing promises – much-trumpeted since the deal reached at Gleneagles in 2005 – will deliver only a fraction of this.
With the existing process so unsatisfactory, the global debt movement, led by Jubilee South, has increasingly stressed wider issues of justice and power when calling for debt cancellation. In 2006, Norway decided to cancel $80 million of debts on the basis of shared responsibility for the failure of the loans, which were given to support ship exports. This has fuelled the debate on so-called ‘illegitimate’ debts – where rich countries have lent money to serve their own political or commercial ends, and the funds have not benefited the people of the receiving country. From dictator debts, to lending for useless projects or on unfair terms, examples of illegitimate debts abound. But lender countries are still stuck in the mindset of ‘forgiving’ poor countries their debts, rather than taking responsibility for their poor lending decisions in the first place.
All of which makes the Journey to Justice event in Birmingham much more than simply remembrance of things past. With participants from Jamaica, Zambia, South Africa and the Philippines, as well as interviews, music and film at the International Convention Centre – the same venue where the G8 met in 1998 – campaigners will certainly be celebrating the achievements of the last 10 years. But above all they will be focusing on finishing the task at hand – to drop all the debt and stop unjust debts building up again in the future.