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October 16, 1999
Column #946

JUBILEE 2000: DEBT RELIEF FOR THE POOR

     "Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land.... It shall be a jubilee for you." Leviticus 25:10

     Sometimes people of faith change the world.

     Jesse Ventura would disagree. Recently he said, "Organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people who need strength in numbers."

     Consider the story of Peggy Sandlin, a member of Bread for the World, a group that mobilizes Christians to affect politics to help the poor.

     Shortly after her Congressman, Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), was named Chairman of a Banking subcommittee, BFW asked her to call him about "Jubilee 2000," a proposal to forgive the debt of the world's poorest nations. Peggy, a family friend, asked him if he knew about debt relief.

     "I know nothing about it," he replied.

     She told him about how many sub-Sahara nations are crushed paying off debt for the purchase of military equipment during the Cold War. Tanzania, for example, spends four times as much on debt as on primary education, and nine times more than on health. She told him of a bill to forgive 41 such nations of $970 million.

     "What I like is they are not relieved of their obligation to pay the debt, but it goes into a trust fund to be used only for health, education and the environment," she said. "If an international agency found that money was not going into the trust fund, debt relief is canceled,"

     When BFW first heard of Bachus' appointment, and asked colleagues if he would be open to Jubilee 2000, they said "Good luck." The very conservative Congressman has an office full of plaques from budget-cutting groups, "The Sound Money Award." Jubilee 2000 was supported by the most liberal religious denominations - Episcopalians and Methodists.

     But Bachus is a deeply committed Southern Baptist. So he agreed to meet with other BFW constituents from his Birmingham district.

     Elaine Van Cleve told him "Each day 34,000 people die of hunger-related diseases."

     Bachus asked, "Explain the connection between that and debt."

     "All I know is that as a mother, if I had debt inherited from my grandparents, and at the same time was trying to feed a child, I would want to feed my child," she said.

     In the United States, we spend $4,093 per person on health care. In Ethiopia it is only $3 or $5 in Nigeria, $37 in Nicaragua. An average for these 41 countries is $22.

     He instantly agreed to sponsor the Debt Relief for Poverty Reduction Act, and is now a passionate advocate: "Please help 700 million of your brothers and sisters in the poorest countries of the world," Bachus wrote to other House Members. "This legislation is the first necessary step for raising the standard of living of those in 41 impoverished countries, those in most need, the most vulnerable, the most helpless.

     "What would it cost your constituents? Over three years it would only cost each American a mere $1.20 a year for three years. It is the cost of an ice cream cone, a gallon of gas, a Sunday paper. Against this minuscule sacrifice, what is the cost of not acting as it applies to 15 baby boys or girls born into the poorest of countries?" he asked.

     "Of those 15, three will die before a fifth birthday. Of the remaining 12, four will suffer the scourge of malnutrition with permanent consequences to their physical and mental development. Of the remaining eight, they are in no way fortunate. Their chances of graduating from high school , or drinking clean water of suffering disease and depravation, of being orphaned are great, sometimes as much as 50-50. Their burdens are day to day. They are painful. They are heavy."

     What the bill can do can be seen in Uganda which had $40 million of debt payments diverted into a Poverty Action Fund. In two years, the number of children in elementary school more than doubled from 2.6 million to 5.3 million.

     The bill recently won support from President Clinton and has a good chance of passage.

     "This decision will define us as either a loving people, a people filled with grace and compassion or it will define us as a people focused on the monetary, the temporal,"says the Member of Congress who took a phone call from Peggy Sandlin.

     "The bill is a gift of life," he told me. "Jubillee 2000 is a celebration of the 2000th birthday of Christ. What did Christ give us? He gave us lives as Christians. What more appropriate time to give to these poor in celebration of the birth of Jesus who gave us life?"

     Sometimes America's democracy works like it is supposed to.

Copyright 1999 Michael J. McManus.

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