Editorial in the Washington Post: Forgiving Debts of the Poor, September 20, 2000

Year Published
  • 2014
  • English

By Bernard Cardinal Law
Catholic Archbishop of Boston
Chairman, Committee on International Policy
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

Washington Post, Wednesday, September 20, 2000, p.A33

For many religious believers, the Year 2000 is a Jubilee Year, a time not just to celebrate the millennium but to make new beginnings and to right old wrongs. In the Old Testament, Jubilee called in particular for a fresh start for the poor, for reestablishing justice and equity. In the spirit of the Jubilee, the Archdiocese of Boston recently forgave $28 million of debts, owed mostly by the 30 poorest parishes. This step is similar to actions by other dioceses and is linked to Pope John Paul II's urgent call for debt relief for poor countries during this year.

More than 30 very poor countries owe well over $100 billion, most to other governments and international organizations like the World Bank and the IMF. Like the Holy Father and other religious leaders, many governments, including our own, many prominent economists and policy makers, and key Members of Congress have called on the wealthiest nations to reduce this crushing debt burden of the poorest.

In the next few weeks, Congress will decide whether the United States will do its small share. This is the last chance to make the year 2000 a time of hope for millions of the world's poorest people. It will take $435 million. This is an amount large enough to make an important difference to many of the poorest countries, but a tiny three-hundredths of 1% of the federal budget. This small amount would fund two years of the U.S. commitment to the debt relief program approved by the G-7 leaders last year at Cologne, Germany. It is an amount that would encourage other countries holding much more debt than the U.S. to come forward with their much larger share of the cost of the program.

Unfortunately, it is also an amount which Congress so far has been unwilling to provide.

I find it very difficult to explain to Catholic bishops, missionaries, and relief workers in Africa and Latin America why the United States, blessed with such wonderful resources and such a powerful economy, is so reluctant to commit such a relatively small amount. They know our budget has a surplus projected to reach trillions of dollars over the next decade. Nor do I have an answer to the Pope's appeal. He asked many months ago: "[Why is] progress in resolving the debt problem...still so slow. Why so many hesitations? Why the difficulty in providing the funds needed even for already-agreed initiatives? It is the poor who pay the cost of indecision and delay."

A U.S. failure to fulfill its Cologne pledge would be devastating. If the U.S. walks away from its commitment, others will surely follow suit, thus jeopardizing the whole program. Already major debt relief for Bolivia and Honduras is being held up for lack of U.S. funding. The possibility that this initiative will fail is something that our Church partners in Africa and Latin America dread to contemplate. Through a host of Church institutions, from relief and development programs to hospitals and schools, they are with the poorest of the poor and see every day in countless ways the practical consequences of debt.

They know that debt relief is not a panacea. It alone will not end poverty. Poverty is much too complex and deep-seated for that. They know that it must be tackled first by their own governments and people working together on a variety of fronts for the common good. Yet their people are too poor to do it alone. Unless the debt burden is sharply reduced, it will continue to drain resources needed for education, health, and other essential investments and make the task of poverty reduction immensely more difficult.

A few weeks ago, the Senate and the House were set to approve only very small amounts for poor country debt relief. Then something most heartening occurred during the House floor debate on the foreign aid bill. Members from both sides of the aisle stood up to press for much more substantial debt relief.

Rep. John Kasich, chair of the Budget Committee argued that, with our "unprecedented economic power, it does not make any sense to not share some of the bounty that we have with those that have little." Rep. Spencer Baucus, the Alabama Republican, explained: "[I]t is not a total solution to poverty, to hunger, to disease; but it is the first step. It is a necessary step. It is where the journey should begin to free these countries of the burden of debt, the chains of poverty, the shackles of despair...."

In the end the House voted to triple funding for debt relief, but this is still only about half of what is needed. I hope, nevertheless, that the momentum generated by the signs of substantial bipartisan support for generous funding will translate into the full appropriation of $435 million. With the crowded agenda and the rush to adjourn, funding for debt relief could get pushed aside. I hope that this does not happen. My fervent prayer is that, when Congress adjourns, we will be able to say to the people of Africa and Latin America: "Yes, our country, which has been blessed with so much, will act, in the spirit of Jubilee, to allow a fresh start for the poorest of the poor in your country."