Starting From Scratch
issue 312 - May 1999
Starting from scratch
An idea first planted in ancient Hebrew texts has grown into the most effective
campaign to date for the cancellation of Third World debt.
John Mihevc explains.
There is nothing like a major turning of the calendar page to focus energies and instil hope. For years anti-debt campaigners have been trying to keep the issue alive. There have been times when, like our biblical ancestors, we seemed to be wandering on the margins of the desert, searching to find a source of inspiration to water our hopes for a just solution. But as the calendar advances towards the millennium there is a new feeling of optimism and energy, a sense that things are beginning to happen.
One word for it is Jubilee the seed of an idea planted by our biblical ancestors that is now blooming anew. Who would have thought that this short but significant passage in the Hebrew scriptures could be responsible for one of the most exciting and effective anti-debt initiatives ever launched?
You shall have the trumpet sounded loud
You shall hallow the fiftieth year
You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land
It shall be a Jubilee for you
At first glance the passage doesnt seem to say much, but as we peel away the layers of meaning we get a clearer picture of ancient Israels moral worldview based on social equity and respect for creation.
The text goes on to include a call to set slaves free, forgive debts, restore wealth to the poor and give animals and the land a period of rest. The word Jubilee is derived from the Hebrew word jobel, the curved rams horn that was sounded to mark the occasion.
The Jubilee vision weaves together several other key ethical insights from the Hebrew scriptures. First is the Jubilees relationship to the notion of Sabbath as a time for rest and stock-taking, a principle that has almost disappeared in our seven-day-a-week, twenty-four-hour-a-day consumer world. The second insight is that humans are only tenants on the land which they work. The Earth belongs to God and we honour creation by giving it, and those who work it, periodic rest. The poor should also be released from their debts and given back some land and wealth so that they can start over.
The Jubilee 2000 campaign calls for a sweeping cancellation of Third World debts. But campaigns to forgive the debts of the poorest developing nations are nothing new. They have been issued by churches in the South for a decade at least and have gone largely unheeded.
However, this time things are different. This new international movement has taken on a momentum that debt activists like myself scarcely dreamed possible.
What really underscores the Jubilee vision is its brilliant combination of hope and realism. It is realistic in the sense that no matter what structures we put in place, the distribution of wealth and land will become imbalanced, requiring a major adjustment. It is hopeful and daring in laying out how such a major readjustment should occur.
What I find most compelling, though, is its inherent recognition that no social, political or economic system can guarantee the well-being of everyone. To put all ones faith in any system is a form of idolatry. The Jubilee vision challenges the triumphant claims of global capitalism that it is the best and only system for organizing society. No matter what system is in place, some will become rich at the expense of others and debts will be accumulated that can never be repaid. Because of this, say Jubilee supporters, we need a mechanism to take stock and wipe the slate clean.
Two regional launches for the growing Jubilee movement have taken place so far: one in Ghana and the other in Honduras. And a global Jubilee conference was held in Rome last January. The debates were often intense with many points of disagreement. But in the end we all agreed that debt cancellation is one necessary step towards transforming our global economy though not the only one. Current initiatives for debt relief are not simply inadequate, they are unjust and ineffective as well. Conditions imposed by the North were rejected they should be set by the South for the South, with increased participation by civil society in the cancellation process.
For veteran debt campaigners there is a lot to learn. Not only does the campaign have popular appeal and support, the Jubilee message is also aimed at many levels of society. Instead of restricting itself to lobbying policy-makers, it has taken the message on to the streets and into the mainstream media. The campaign has received the official endorsement of church hierarchies, from the Pope to the Anglican Bishops to the World Council of Churches.
Yoko Kitasawa, co-chair of Jubilee 2000 Japan considers the Jubilee campaign, the most successful campaign uniting trade unions, religious groups, NGOs and other social movements working for the impoverished people of Africa and the South. While Annika Lysen of the Swedish Jubilee campaign notes: This campaign has forced the so-called debt experts to communicate their message more clearly, but also to be more accountable to the public.
These global campaigns and coalitions will not simply disappear in 2001. For David Musona of the Zambian Jubilee campaign, the most important lasting benefit is the greater capacity of groups at the local level to understand economic policy-making and to speak out in their own interests. Now, he says, governments and international financial institutions will no longer be able to ignore local groups directly affected by their decisions when they consider taking on new loans.
Northern groups need well-articulated Southern campaigns to give them their politics. The onus is on us to arrive at a similar vision of social transformation and to coalesce to become a truly global movement into the next millennium.
John Mihevc is Co-ordinator of the Economic Justice Programme at the Inter-Church Coalition on Africa, which is a member of the Canadian Ecumenical Jubilee Initiative.
He is author of The Market Tells Them So: The World Bank and Economic Fundamentalism in Africa
(Zed Books, London, and Third World Network, Penang, 1995).
photo JUBILEE 2000 COALITION
Third World Voices on the Jubilee Campaign
Molefe Tsele (below), South African Jubilee campaign: The Jubilee message speaks to the South because it is striking a nerve with those who are suffering the most. Its so conspiratorial that only the poor could have come up with such an outrageous scheme!
Rogate Mshana, Tanzania Jubilee campaign: If our country continues to pay the rich while children die of hunger and lack of health services, we are offending God.
Zie Gariyo, Uganda Debt Network: The difference for me and most of us in the Jubilee 2000 campaign is that for the first time it is oriented towards the masses of people themselves... The message is clear and simple and not complicated by economic posturing, with formulas
that very few people understand. The Jubilee campaign in Uganda cuts across the broad section of society and addresses issues of development and human rights as well as social justice.
Alejandro Bendaña (below), Nicaragua Jubilee Campaign: We need each other, the one side looking to the heavens and the other at their accountant books. They have to come together, and thats what the Jubilee is doing.
Helen Wangusa, African Womens Economic Policy Network: Most of the Southern groups feel they are playing catch-up on a campaign that is well advanced in most Northern countries on a narrowly defined agenda that has been set in the North.