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Jewish Journal

A Chance to Make Poverty History

by Ruth W. Messinger

June 30, 2005 | 8:00 pm

This weekend, as we join all Americans in proudly celebrating our independence, we also should be thinking of the 1 billion people in the world who live on $1 a day or less, most of whom lack clean water, electricity, food, education and medical care. It is our hope that in this spirit, President Bush fully contemplates an opportunity he has to help free millions from the chains of poverty when he meets with world leaders in Scotland.

Known as the G8 Summit, eight of the world's wealthiest nations will be meeting July 6 to discuss, among other global issues, the Millennium Goals agreed to by all 189 member states of the United Nations to reduce global poverty.

American Jewish World Service (AJWS) and Church World Service (CWS) are united in our missions to help meet these goals. We work every day helping to liberate poor communities in the developing world from the bondage of poverty, working in partnership with the organized poor to build a more hopeful future and create social justice for all.

For example, 10 months ago, a health clinic supported by AJWS opened in Kigali, Rwanda. It was the first effort to provide AIDS treatment to women who were raped and contracted HIV during the violence and genocide that took place there 11 years ago.

The clinic provides lifesaving anti-retroviral drugs to every woman who needs them. Now, instead of growing sick and dying before their children's eyes, these women continue to work and raise their children, bringing hope to a new generation.

In Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and soon Kenya, AJWS and CWS are partnering to provide vocational training and AIDS awareness to orphans living with AIDS, enabling them to care for themselves and siblings and participate in the social and economic development of their communities.

These types of human services can and should be replicated in villages and cities across Africa and the developing world and it cannot be done by nonprofit humanitarian organizations alone.

Unfortunately, too many communities do not yet have the resources to provide lifesaving and basic human services, in large part because their governments are forced to spend millions of dollars to pay interest on decades-old debts.

Last year, the world's poorest nations paid more than $2 billion in debt service to international creditors. Even as they struggle to combat the AIDS pandemic and provide education for every child, many countries are forced to spend six times as much on debt service as they do on health care and education combined.

There is new hope that the global community will comprehensively address the debt crisis that plagues more than 50 nations, but especially the region of sub-Saharan Africa. On June 10, the United States and Great Britain announced an agreement to cancel 100 percent of the debts that 18 countries are paying to the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and African Development Bank.

While Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair deserve much credit for reaching this potentially lifesaving agreement prior to their meeting in Scotland, too many countries in desperate need of debt cancellation are left out.

More than a dozen countries that ought to qualify for debt relief were denied because they refuse to agree to the harmful economic policies that creditors currently require. These policies, such as requiring user fees for health care or education, would deepen poverty and should be antithetical to any vision of a just world.

Sri Lanka is one of the nations that unfairly falls outside the current framework for debt relief. This nation was devastated by the tsunami late last year, yet it continues to pay hundreds of millions in debt service.

And perhaps most shockingly, South Africa, the country with the largest HIV population in the world, continues to pay back billions in apartheid-era debts that were incurred by the white-minority government that used to oppress the black-majority population. For the sake of justice, we cannot forget these countries and their crushing debts.

Debt relief initiatives have proved an effective, practical way to provide poor countries with the resources to meet the health and education needs of their people. A limited debt relief program in the mid-1990s allowed 4 million more children to go to primary school in Uganda. Because of debt relief, Mali, Mozambique and Senegal have dramatically increased their AIDS prevention, care and treatment.

In achieving these successes, countries have also avoided the traps predicted by naysayers. Because governments receiving relief have been held accountable, the money saved has been invested in social services, not personal offshore accounts or increased military spending.

Furthermore, because the sums of money involved are enormous to poor countries, but imperceptibly small to rich countries like the United States, canceling the debt will not hurt lending nations or impact the ability of the World Bank or International Monetary Fund to finance development programs.

In the year 2000, millions of people of faith and principle across America, and indeed the entire world, joined together in the Jubilee Campaign to eliminate the debt that holds poor countries down. That call of conscience still resonates today.

A world in which few prosper and many starve offends our commitment to fairness and insults our belief in justice for all, principles that are central to our American values and at the heart of our Jewish and Christian faiths.

Every human being is created in the image of God, and as such, deserves basic human rights, dignity and respect. The president has already taken a welcome step toward a historic agreement to cancel the debt of poor countries. Working with Blair, he must ensure that other European leaders agree to 100 percent debt cancellation for all countries in need, without imposing harmful conditions.

We can make poverty history.

Ruth Messinger is president and executive director of American Jewish World Service. For more information, go to www.ajws.org. The Rev. John McCullough is executive director and chief executive officer of Church World Service. For more information, go to www.churchworldservice.org. A longer version of this essay appears this week in The Forward.

 

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