JUBILEE 2000: DEBT RELIEF FOR THE POOR
"Consecrate the fiftieth year and
proclaim liberty throughout the land.... It shall be a jubilee for you."
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
"I know nothing about it," he
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
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
Elaine Van Cleve told him "Each day 34,000 people
die of hunger-related diseases."
Bachus asked, "Explain the connection between that
"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
"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
"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
Copyright 1999 Michael J. McManus.
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