Cancel Third World debt, churches urge

Bob Harvey, with files from Joanne Laucius
The Ottawa Citizen

Canadian churches are helping to kick off a worldwide campaign to persuade industrialized countries to write off the debts of the world's poorest nations.

Ottawa's Anglican bishop, John Baycroft, and its Roman Catholic archbishop, Marcel Gervais, will meet Finance Minister Paul Martin tomorrow to urge him and Commonwealth finance ministers to endorse the campaign.

Bishop Baycroft said cancelling the debts would make it possible to save the lives of millions of children in Third World countries.

"One of the most dramatic effects would be an improvement in the health of children.

"It could also mean access to clean water and curing cases of blindness that can be fixed with simple operations," he said.

Bishop Baycroft said many Third World nations are being crippled by debt payments mandated by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Experts estimate Third World countries have already paid twice as much to industrialized countries as the original $1.5 trillion they borrowed, and say that many of the debtor countries are effectively bankrupt.

Since the debts were first contracted in the 1960s and 1970s, the economies of many Third World countries have been devastated by a dramatic drop in the prices paid for their commodities and the soaring price of oil.

The campaign to cancel the debts of about 45 countries is now worldwide, and includes not only churches but relief organizations such as Oxfam.

Organizers hope to present 24 million signatures to leaders of the Group of Seven industrialized nations when they meet next year in Cologne, Germany. Canadian organizers hope to collect a half-million of those signatures.

If the petition campaign succeeds, it will probably be the largest ever in Canada and the world.

Bishop Baycroft and Archbishop Gervais will launch the national campaign on Parliament Hill tomorrow. That launch is timed to coincide with a Commonwealth finance ministers' meeting that begins here Tuesday.

Catholic, Anglican and other local churches were expected to begin distributing petitions and other information about the debt cancellation proposal this weekend.

Christian groups involved in the campaign have called it the Jubilee Debt Cancellation Campaign, because of God's biblical command to renew society every 50 years by freeing slaves and forgiving debts.

Pope John Paul II was the first to call for debt relief as part of such a Jubilee celebration in the year 2000, and the world's Anglican bishops backed that call at their meetings in July. All of Canada's major churches are involved in the campaign.

The idea is not a new one. At a G-7 meeting in Britain earlier this year, thousands of demonstrators urged that the debt be wiped out by the end of the millennium.

But some world leaders and the international banking community have balked at the concept.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin has said that granting debt forgiveness too freely could erode the financial discipline that wealthy nations have been urging on their poor counterparts.

And others have argued that this is the wrong time to deplete the resources of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, just as these institutions are struggling to help Asian nations in the current economic crisis.

However, Bishop Baycroft said economists are convinced it would be feasible to cancel the debts of the poorest countries.

"It's not a crazy idea. There's a fair degree of good will (toward the campaign) among many western politicians, but what they need is some demonstration of popular support," he said.

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