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My granny was the daughter of a stonemason and she grew up in fear of frost. When the mercury dipped below zero the water that lubricated the stone-cutting saws would freeze, threatening her father's job and raising the spectre of hunger. Yet her fear of debt was even greater than her fear of frost. In Victorian England there was no deeper shame than the debtors' prison. The Clink Street Jail in London gave its name to an expression - 'in the clink' - that described the worst fate imaginable. For the working class, staying out of debt was a principle born from a bitter collective memory of the slavery that came with it.

Today debt slavery has not disappeared. Countless lives are being ruined and the real economic progress of dozens of impoverished countries hobbled by a growing debt burden. All of us - nations, individuals and private businesses - float on a stormy ocean of debt and think nothing of it, while sirens beckon from the shoals offering immediate gratification of our lurking desires. As I know all too well, it's hard to resist.

I guess that's probably why I wasn't all that shocked when I recently opened a menacing letter from a debt collector. 'Your credit worthiness,' it scolded me, 'is a priceless asset. Utilities check it before agreeing to connect you to their services. Landlords check it before renting property and banks before granting mortgages. Your standing with the authorities may be damaged and you may have difficulty finding a job...'

The letter suggested that my life was on the verge of immediate ruin unless I paid up. I'm sceptical. Personally my attitude resembles that of an uncle who, if his bank didn't oblige him, confidently threatened to take his overdraft elsewhere.

Nonetheless, it's nearly impossible to make sense of debt and the global financial system without having some grasp of economics, if only to put it in its proper place. So this magazine is one in a mini-series on economic themes that began with Money (No 306) last October and will be followed in December by a double issue on the desperate need for new financial 'architecture'.

What makes this magazine different from the other two is that it's tied directly to the Jubilee 2000 campaign for the cancellation of Third World debt. In this issue you'll find a background briefing with plenty of extra reasons - should you need them - to join in.

Some 70,000 anti-debt campaigners attended the Group of Seven (G7) summit in Birmingham, England, last June. Now the Jubilee 2000 campaign, North and South, is limbering up to do the same thing in Cologne, Germany, this coming June. Extra copies of this issue of NI have been printed for the lead-up to Cologne and for distribution at the summit itself. It's a unique opportunity for people to make a difference.

Oh, and by the way, it turned out that the dunning letter mentioned above was in fact a 'computer error' for a couple of mail-order books sent to the wrong address - rather like all those Third World debts. In my case, the mistake was corrected and the ruin of my life averted. In their case, the mistake has yet to be recognized and millions of lives are being ruined regardless.

The dictatorship of debt
David Ransom questions who owes whom - and for what.

A dictionary of debt.

Under the volcano
Nicaragua may have been flattened by Hurricane Mitch, says Tim Gaynor. But not half so much as by 'structural adjustment'.

Double dealing
Or how to fix the rules of high finance. Ellen Frank explains.

Two-faced copper
Paying for the falling world price of copper. Chris Holt reports from Lusaka and London.


Simple life
George Fisher profiles Jeremy Hare, a modern consumer whose world slowly slides into financial chaos.

Scrap metal jacket
Why Vietnam gets no benefit from one useful legacy of the US military machine. By Michel Chossudovsky.

Take the hit!
If you're greedy enough to float loans to dictators and despots you should accept the consequences, argues Joe Hanlon.

The Marshalltezuma Plan
Cuaicaipuro Cuautémoc launches a rescue package to save Europe from itself.

Debts to history
How governments borrow to wage war.

Starting from scratch
The origins of the Jubilee idea explored by John Mihevc.

Break the chains
Ann Pettifor proposes a Debt Review Body to redress the imbalance between debtors and creditors.

ACTION and worth reading

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Letter from Mongolia

plus Walter Sallesclassic
NI Crossword
The NI Interview with Kim Soon-duk
Country profile: Algeria

go to the NI home page

David Ransom
for the New Internationalist Co-operative
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